Happening Now

Update on BNSF Derailment in New Mexico

May 3, 2024

Rail Passengers Association's update on the BNSF derailment outside of Albuquerque, and the ongoing service impacts to the Southwest Chief.

By Sean Jeans-Gail, VP of Gov’t Affairs + Policy

Rail Passengers has heard from several our members about last Friday’s BNSF derailment, which shut down I-40 and left passengers on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief stranded near the border between New Mexico and Arizona.

The BNSF derailment, which took place on April 26, involved rail cars carrying 180,000 gallons of fuel, causing a large fire. In response, local officials ordered the evacuation of residences within a two-mile radius and shut down parts of Interstate 40, creating massive highway gridlock across the region.

The disruption also impacted passengers on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief service. Local outlet KOAT News interviewed passengers at the station, many of whom reported that—while they had been offered refunds by Amtrak—the railroad hadn’t provided any immediate assistance in the aftermath, such as help finding hotel lodgings.

“I was pretty disappointed. I mean, they didn't tell us [anything],” passenger Ferlin Lee told KOAT News. “I was halfway to my destination and [was] supposed to arrive at midnight… Which is understandable. You can't drive a train through a fire. Or if the track ain't there.”

“I just could tell right away [officials] were telling everyone something different, and they weren't being honest at all," Lee added. “We all felt ping-ponged.”

Amtrak provided a statement to KOAT News, saying “Due to the unforeseen interruption of their trips, Amtrak provided customers with full refunds and offered to return them to their point of origin via train. Customers are invited to contact 1-800-USA-RAIL to discuss their individual circumstances.”

“This situation wasn’t caused by Amtrak, and we support the railroad’s move to put the safety of passengers and workers first,” said Jim Mathews, President & CEO of Rail Passengers. “However, it is essential that passengers that are put into this kind of situation are provided the information and assistance they need to make the necessary arrangements. You can’t just leave people at the station with the promise of a refund and a fare-thee-well.”

Rail Passengers’ staff is currently in communication with Amtrak to try to get a better understanding of the procedures that exist for these kinds of situation, and whether those procedures were followed.

Critically, there were several compounding factors that made it difficult for Amtrak and local officials to accommodate passengers and arrange alternate travel. In addition to a two-day closure of 70 miles of Interstate 40, the BNSF derailment also coincided with the Gathering of Nations, leaving most hotels in the area booked solid.

“There were no rooms to be found. Everything was sold out again, because of the Gathering of Nations—100,000 people or so in Albuquerque,” Patrick Montoya, chief operations officer for the city of Albuquerque, told KOAT News. “That made it just extremely difficult.”

Rail Passengers Council Providing on the Ground Updates

Rail Passengers’ volunteer leadership have played a vital role in monitoring the issue on the ground, providing real time feedback to Association staff on the latest developments, and how last week’s response compares to prior incidents.

“Last Fall I was riding a westbound Southwest Chief when a BNSF derailment west of Albuquerque halted the train,” said Rail Passengers Association Council Member Lynn Aldrich of New Mexico. “That Amtrak crew handled a tough situation well, and passengers were bussed by Amtrak from Albuquerque to Winslow. Likewise, eastbound passengers from Winslow were bussed to Albuquerque. The trains were turned, and the bus ‘bridge’ allowed passengers to continue on their journey.”

“While I understand a bus bridge may not have been possible in last week’s situation, I do have a problem with how Amtrak left passengers whose travel plans would not allow them to take a train back to their point of origin to their own devices in Albuquerque,” continued Aldrich. “Many coach passengers may not have the financial resources to buy yet another ticket without getting their refund money first. And buying a plane ticket at the last minute is extremely expensive—much more expensive than the train ticket they bought.”

Members of Congress have been in touch with our Council Members about the service disruptions, and we are working to keep them advised as the latest information surfaces.

On a positive note, while Southwest Chief service between Albuquerque and Los Angeles was suspended while BNSF repaired the track, Trains 3 and 4 continued to serve stations between Albuquerque and Chicago. This is a meaningful improvement over previous disruptions on the Chief, which saw the service suspended across the entire corridor.

Rail Passenger Bill of Rights

Rail Passengers has assembled a “Rail Passenger Bill of Rights” that would address many of the problems raised by the April 26 BNSF derailment.

This document draws from prior legislative proposals, existing regulation of the aviation industry, and international models for oversight of intercity passenger rail carriers. It states that, even when the train operator is not at fault for a delay, the operator must give passengers information on the situation in real time, and provide passengers with information on their rights and carrier obligations.

Our Passenger Bill of Rights wouldn’t have magically freed up hotel rooms in Albuquerque, our allowed busses to navigate Interstate 40. But it could help passengers in the future count on receiving a consistent flow of information through well-defined channels, and ensure that there is a clear complaints-handling mechanism in place to provide feedback and receive compensation.

Freight Railroad Safety in the Spotlight

The National Transportation Safety Board will need time to investigate the derailment before the cause of the derailment is known. However, the safety culture of U.S. freight railroads has been in the spotlight after a series of high-profiled incidents.

Many of these accidents have been the result of so-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” which is an industry marketing term for “running longer trains with smaller crews.”

Rail Passengers supports the bipartisan push for the Railway Safety Act (S.576/H.R. 1674) to improve freight rail safety by capping train lengths for certain cargo, mandate two-person crews for volatile categories of freight, increase financial penalties for safety violations, and improve oversight and reporting.