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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Federal board hears testimony on CN discrepancies

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The three members of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board expressed disappointment with Canadian National Railway Co. officials at last week's hearing regarding discrepancies in the company's reporting of blocked crossings on the Elgin, Eastern & Joliet Railroad, the Barrington, Ill., Courier Review reports. The hearing was held after an independent audit discovered there were 1,457 incidents of railroad crossings being blocked for 10 minutes or more by trains on the EJ&E in November and December 2009. CN reported to the transportation board that there were only 14 incidents.

Board Chairman Daniel Elliott III said the discrepancies were a "troublesome failure by CN to be entirely forthcoming. When carriers believe they can decide what information to reveal and what to conceal, it undermines the integrity of the entire process."

The board did not take action but Commissioner Charles Nottingham suggested that the board should extend the oversight period of CN by a year.

"At the least I feel like we've lost a year of doing the kind of robust oversight that I envisioned when we started this project," Nottingham said.

CN special advisor Gordon Trafton was apologetic about the miscommunication and said CN officials believed they were only required to report instances where crossings were blocked for 10 minutes or longer due to stopped trains.

"We believed we were meeting the board's reporting requirements," Trafton said.

Elliott said federal board staff had expressed to CN officials throughout the process that they were interested in monitoring all crossing blockages of 10 or more minutes, including those that were caused by slow-moving trains.

U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean, D-8th, of Barrington, attended the hearing and blasted CN for its "pattern of disregard for our laws and indifference toward our communities. For communication to work, there has to be trust. Sadly, so far CN's promises to work with communities in good faith and keep their commitments have proven false."

Karen Darch, Barrington village president and co-chair of The Regional Answer to Canadian National (TRAC) coalition, traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the hearing.

"It was encouraging in that the efforts that TRAC and the citizens have made by submitting comments was acknowledged," she said.

Last November the coalition petitioned the federal board to conduct an independent audit of CN's reporting of blocked crossings. The federal board assigned the task to HDR, Inc., which discovered that many of the crossings were outfitted with devices that automatically collect data about the length of time the crossing gates have been down. The company used this equipment to discover the 1,400-plus blockages of 10 minutes or longer.

Trafton said CN did not discover this equipment until April 2009 and, at the time, were not familiar enough with its capabilities to use it in the reports to the federal board.

"Throughout the middle of the year we were still, if you will, trying to understand the data and what some of the limitations are," Trafton said.

He said CN's failure to alert the federal board that the equipment existed was not an intentional omission.

The federal board commissioners were not convinced.

"If we hadn't done this oversight, I hazard to guess how many more months or years would have drifted by where we would have been oblivious to the existence of this very real and meaningful data," Nottingham said.

The federal board could make a ruling on extending the oversight period or other ramifications for CN by early June.

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