BNSF takes back track from a short line

South Western Railroad loses lease on portion of track in wake of safety problems
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SWRRcrashChisumNMcreditWilliamPDiven
BNSF Railway locomotives that were wrecked in a crash in 2015 when as South Western Railroad crew accidentally left a switch open to the mainline, according to documents previously obtained by Trains News Wire. BNSF has reclaimed portions of the railroad after safety errors by the short line.
William P. Diven
CLOVIS, N.M. — BNSF Railway this week reclaims one of its New Mexico subdivisions after ending its lease with troubled shortline operator Southwestern Railroad.

The Carlsbad Subdivision main line extends 195 miles from BNSF's Southern Transcon at Clovis south through Roswell and Carlsbad to Loving Jct. on the former Rustler Springs Sub. It mostly serves the petroleum industry, agriculture, potash mining, and the federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground repository for nuclear waste.

The non-union South Western continues to operate its ex-Santa Fe Railway Whitewater Sub in southwestern New Mexico but remains under a three-year compliance agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration. The agreement from September 2015 cited safety, maintenance, and operations issues. The agreement followed fatal crashes on both subs that claimed four lives.

BNSF abandoned 47 miles of the Rustler Springs Sub from Loving Jct. into Texas in 2002. The short line leased the remaining line and spurs in 2004.

An immediate priority for BNSF will be tie and rail replacement on the Carlsbad line, spokesman Joe Sloan says in an email response to Trains News Wire.

"Over the next year, it is anticipated that roughly 45,000 ties and 30,000 feet of rail will be replaced on this subdivision," Sloan says.

Train crews will now based out of Clovis while certain maintenance and operations staff will work from Carlsbad, which had been South Western's New Mexico headquarters.

Throughout the BNSF network, staffing depends on customer needs," Sloan says. "(H)ighly qualified BNSF employees have relocated from other areas to fill these positions.

"BNSF local and regional crews will cover maintenance, and the number of staff in those crews will vary depending on the projects."

Both BNSF and South Western have declined to comment on their contract negotiations since the takeover was announced six months before the Jan. 17 effective date.

"While we were disappointed with BNSF's decision, we are moving forward cooperatively with them," Teresa Propeck of South Western parent company The Western Group tells Trains News Wire. "We continue to have a strong relationship with BNSF on several of our other railroads and look forward to working together to provide world-class transportation solutions well into the future."

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to complete its investigation into the April 28, 2015, collision between a mainline freight train and a local train parked on Chisum siding south of Roswell. The crash killed the engineer and severely injured the conductor, both of whom jumped from the cab of the freight moments before the crash.

While there has been no formal ruling of a probable cause, documents previously released suggest the two-man local crew backed into the siding and failed to close the switch before going off-duty.

The FRA, in its report of a fatal runaway on the Whitewater Sub in 2013, found the two-man crew failed to conduct a brake test and had apparently not opened the brakeline angle cock on their locomotive. Both men and the girlfriend of one died when the locomotive shove by eight loaded hoppers plunged off the steep grade into a dried creek bed.

FRA officials subsequently alleged more than 100 regulatory violations on the Whitewater and Carlsbad subs and blistered the company over what it called a safety culture that fostered noncompliance with even basic rules.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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