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  Remote Controlled Locomotives in Store for Richmond?
September 9, 2003

For those of you who are frustrated with political officials at all levels of government having all but given up in finding any solution to the long trains and senseless horn blowing by railroads operating in Richmond, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Remote controlled trains are next. According to recent newspaper articles, BNSF is already operating remote controlled (unmanned) trains in other areas. See


According to one inside source, BNSF plans to soon deploy unmanned locomotives in its Richmond yards, which may help explain why the railroad has been so obsessed with replacing the wigwags with more modern (and presumably more reliable) crossing guard equipment. Credible sources say that this will exacerbate blockages at the West Richmond Avenue crossing in Richmond, and possibly others.

According to an April 2002 article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, “BNSF Chairman Matt Rose said the railroad plans to take delivery throughout this year of 30 new unmanned switch engines to be used at various switching and classification yards on its 29-state system.”

I have to confess that when I first heard the “unmanned locomotive” story, I thought it was the newest urban myth. However, a search of the Internet under “unmanned locomotives” turned up a wealth of information and confirmed this as reality. It looks like this is the wave of the future, despite serious concerns with safety, allegedly BNSF’s highest priority. These are like the radio controlled cars you see kids trying out on Christmas morning, except they weigh 150 tons. Ironically, BNSF currently justifies the incessant horn blowing as the locomotive engineer’s prerogative to react as he or she sees fit to potential danger, such as transients that are on or too close to the tracks or a motorist who is too impatient to wait until the gate rises. Without an engineer to look for danger on the tracks, whatever danger previously existed will be seriously exacerbated. Just this past week, a Richmond man was struck and killed by a train, even after the engineer spotted him and sounded the horn.

Incidentally, the California Public Utility Commission recently reversed its administrative law judge’s previous ruling in favor of the wigwags (see http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/content_syndication/local_news/6697885.htm). The full text is not yet available, but the gist seems to be that BNSF can erect crossing gates, and they are “encouraged” to try to find a way to accommodate not removing the wigwags. A similar concept has been the subject of settlement discussions between the City and BNSF. Details of a proposed modification to West Cutting Boulevard and the Triangle in front of the Plunge to allow retention of the wigwags will be presented to the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council and the Point Richmond Business Association for comment this month.