The Federal Railroad Administration issued a rare emergency order shutting down an Oklahoma short line following the discovery of multiple derailments and safety violations. In an emergency order posted this week, the FRA alleged that the continued operation of the Blackwell Northern Gateway Railroad posed an “imminent threat” to public safety.
The Blackwell Northern operates on approximately 37 miles of track owned by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and came under new management in October 2023, according to the FRA. The railroad runs from Blackwell, Okla., to Wellington, Kan., where it interchanges with BNSF Railway.
According to FRA documents, the federal regulator began to investigate the railroad following a derailment on December 27. During that investigation, it was discovered that Blackwell Northern was “operating with a complete disregard for the safety of the public and has not taken corrective action to resolve safety issues identified by FRA as posing imminent risks of injury or death” to the public and employees. Specifically, the FRA alleged that the railroad was operating locomotives that had not been properly inspected and was using engineers who were not qualified under FRA regulations. The railroad has also maintained no records of track inspections. When confronted with allegations that the railroad was employing unqualified engineers, management allegedly presented false engineer certification cards and falsified hours of service records.
In mid-January, Blackwell Northern management told the FRA that all tracks would be taken out of service. Under FRA rules, that means all movements on the tracks are prohibited unless made to facilitate repairs or authorized by a qualified person. But on January 28, a Blackwell Northern hi-rail truck nearly collided with an automobile at a crossing when the operator failed to yield the right-of-way to vehicle traffic. The crossing signal system was not in service at the time of the incident and no one made an effort to flag the crossing to avoid the near-collision.
Warren Flatau, deputy director of public affairs for the FRA, told Railfan & Railroad that emergency orders such as this are “exceedingly infrequent” and have only been issued 33 times in the agency’s history. In most instances, the agency has ordered a bridge or specific section of rail line be taken out of service, but rarely an entire railroad. In most instances, the FRA issues what are called “compliance orders” to encourage a railroad to take corrective action.
“(An emergency order) is the most severe enforcement tool we have at our disposal,” Flatau said.