We are continuously investing in new technologies and infrastructure to reduce risk. We also inspect our tracks more frequently than we’re required to. Most BNSF routes that carry hazardous materials are inspected up to four times weekly — more than twice than Federal Railroad Administration requirements. The busiest main lines, like the route through the Columbia River Gorge, can be inspected daily.

BNSF also has special detection technology along key routes on our network sending back thousands of messages daily as they monitor for early signs of potential problems that could cause premature equipment wear or failure. Detectors are placed even more closely together in places like the Gorge to ensure potential issues are elevated as quickly as possible. BNSF has also been developing predictive analytics to leverage the combined information received from the multiple types of detectors to discover potential issues before they arise.

This month, we want to share more detailed information about what BNSF does to ensure safety and reliability.

Inspection types
BNSF’s track inspection program uses state-of-the-art technology to help identify defects or problem areas that cannot be detected by the human eye. BNSF invests significantly in inspection and detection technology to enhance regular manual inspection processes.

Over 10 million miles of track are visually inspected by 650+ track inspectors every year. Many of our core subdivisions, including most in Washington, are inspected up to seven times a week. Track inspectors use a wide variety of tools, including level boards and switch point measuring devices, to verify compliance with BNSF track standards.

Rail detectors
BNSF’s rail detectors use ultra-sonic waves to detect internal flaws in the rail. The minimum intervals between inspections are determined by the tonnage moved over a given section of track. The heaviest traffic routes on BNSF’s system receive rail detector testing every 18 days.

Track Geometry cars
Test frequency is a minimum of three times per year. The track geometry car is a specially-equipped passenger car that uses a non-contact inertial based system and full rail profile measurement with its laser optical system. It measures the tracks’ surface under load for, gauge, cross-level, alignment and vertical acceleration. BNSF uses two types of geometry cars — manned and unmanned track geometry cars.

Manned Track Geometry Cars
BNSF’s track geometry car measures major main line routes. A computerized print out of the track indicates where the measured flaws exist in the track. This information is immediately communicated to onboard personnel.
Unmanned Track Geometry Cars
BNSF’s unmanned track geometry car operates 24/7 measuring main line routes. Data is transmitted to a central office with information about where measured flaws exist. This information is immediately communicated to field personnel.


STAR Car (Track Strength Measuring Car)
The STAR Car performs track gauge restraint measurement with its split-load axle, full track geometry measurement with its non-contact inertial based system and full rail profile measurement with its laser optical system. With onboard computer collection and analysis, strip charts, exception reports with GPS coordinates are immediately delivered to track personnel.

WA inspections for hazardous materials routes
For BNSF routes that carrying hazardous materials, we conduct inspections more often to ensure safety and reliability. The increased inspection frequency is shown below.

Visual Inspections
  • Four to seven times per week, and our busiest main lines can be inspected daily
Rail detectors
  • Inspection intervals range from 140 days down to 30 days between tests on busiest routes
Geometry Cars
  • Three times per year
  • One time per year
  • All main track sidings
  • Main lines between Spokane and Vancouver via Pasco