• United States



Foamers to the rescue

Oct 17, 20073 mins
Critical InfrastructureIT Leadership

How train enthusiasts are keeping Americas railways safe

Ken Fitzgerald is pretty sure that he prevented a major train derailment in the summer of 2002. Fitzgerald was stopped at a railway crossing in Fort Worth, Texas, when he noticed a piece of rail sticking out of the track about 100 feet from where he was standing. Knowing that the next locomotive to hit this spot would almost certainly derail, Fitzgerald notified the lines operator, the Fort Worth & Western Railroad, which stopped the oncoming train.

Fitzgerald is what they call a foamer in railway circlesa railway enthusiast who just about foams at the mouth at the sight of a train. He spends several hours per week watching and photographing trains going by. And now thanks to an innovative program launched by Fort Worths Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), hes a part of the effort to secure Americas railways.

BNSF has recruited more than 6,500 foamers like Fitzgerald to keep an eye on its 32,000 miles of railway track, most of it in the southwestern United States. The program, called Citizens for Rail Security, has helped tip off BNSF to theft and illegal dumping, trespassers, fires and train equipment problems.

Citizens for Rail Security is modeled on Neighborhood Watch community policing programs, and its reflective of a general heightened level of security awareness since September 11, 2001, said Bill Heileman, general director of police and protection solutions with BNSF.

Ironically, foamers like Fitzgerald have come under increased scrutiny since 9/11, because police are now taking a second look at anyone hanging around a railway track with a camera. But Heileman believes that Citizens for Rail Security has made BNSF safer. The foundation for security starts with awareness, he said. Nothing is better than good solid intelligence.

Because most of the public discussion of transportation security since 9/11 has focused on the airways, bridges and ports, people like Heileman are facing a daunting task. Trains carry millions of people each day; they move hazardous waste, often through densely populated city centers andmost problematic of allthey crisscross the country on hundreds of thousands of miles of track that is impossible to completely protect.

You cant take a bottle of water through airport security, but head out to the local railway tracks, and you can pretty much do as you please. The way we protect the airports is quite stringent, and yet the way we deal with trespassers on railway property is really kind of lukewarm, says Richard Young, a professor with Pennsylvania State Universitys school of business administration. We dont coordinate security around rail infrastructure anything like that.

Young is the coauthor of a recent report on the state of railway security that recommended that Congress and the Transportation Security Administration pay closer attention to rail security, citing the train bombings in 2004 in Madrid and 2005 in London. Until that happens, however, the railways and foamers like Ken Fitzgerald will have to fill the gap. Robert McMillan