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SALAMANCA – It’s endemic of a downturn in the economy. When times are bad, thefts rise. When prices are high for precious metals, like copper, thieves will rip wiring and plumbing from new or vacant houses. Others will hit rail yards or railroad signal boxes, posing hazards not only to rail personnel, but also the public.

“The theft of copper wiring from the signal boxes at at-grade crossings creates a safety issue,” Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad President Carl P. Belke said in a talk to members of the Southern Tier Extension Rail Authority.“Someone is going to get killed, because of the theft.”

The problems come when the boxes are robbed of the switches that help detect oncoming trains and drop the gates to prevent vehicles from crossing the tracks.

Although they won’t close the gates, Belke said, the boxes can function without the switches on back-up batteries for up to 72 hours. After that, the signal boxes are designed to no longer hold the gates up, closing the crossing to traffic in both directions.

But the thefts do not always involve wire switches from crossing signals. At the rail yard in Olean, several metal plates recently were stolen and taken to a scrap yard.

According to New York State law, when a person brings what is suspected to be materials from a rail yard to a scrap yard, the scrap yard owner is required to take pictures of the vehicle that brought the items, get identification from the person trying to sell it, and hold it for a specific period to allow for reclamation of the materials.

Along with theft, Belke said emotional responses, leading to legislation, are creating hurdles that are very costly and ineffective for short line owners. The deadly rail accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, while still under investigation, is likely to lead to such regulation, Belke said.

In that case, the unattended 74-car freight train, carrying crude oil, is suspected to not have been secured for the grade on which it was parked, Belke said.

The failure of a restraining system allowed the train to roll downhill into the town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion and fires that killed 42 people, with five still missing.

“It couldn’t happen here, in the United States,” Belke said. “We have much different rules than Canada. We have rules on how to secure trains on a grade. Those are non-existent in Canada. To date, there have been no instances of unattended freight trains getting away in the United States.

“I am very concerned that this incident is going to produce emotional laws,” Belke continued. “We have single-man crews on our trains. Study after study shows that one man is safer than two, and two are much safer than three. If I have one man on a train, his attention is on what he’s doing, not talking to those other guys with him. That’s when accidents happen.”

Belke said he believes the Lac-Megantic incident could result in mandated crew sizes and regulations that do away with the limited use of remote control in rail yards.