A series of phone calls secretly recorded by a track inspector-turned-whistleblower at Burlington Northern Santa Fe is raising more questions about the safety culture at Minnesota’s largest railroad.
“Why can’t we just fix the (expletive) defects?” an employee is heard saying on one of the calls.
The recordings, which have not been previously reported, are part of a 2017 lawsuit filed in federal court by former track inspector, Don Sanders.
A jury later found BNSF retaliated against Sanders after he claimed he was fired for reporting “too many defects.”
The railroad is currently appealing a multi-million-dollar verdict. BNSF did not respond to requests to comment on the recordings obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES. In a previous statement, a spokesperson said the company “does not retaliate against employees.”
Sanders’ case, and the recordings that came with it, are revealing more about the inner workings of a multi-billion-dollar company that is under growing scrutiny.
After a derailment last March in Southwest Minnesota, 5 INVESTIGATES found BNSF had repeatedly been sanctioned or admonished in court for destroying evidence or retaliating against employees.
The pattern of misconduct dates back more than a decade, according to an analysis of hundreds of federal court records.
In one recording from 2015, Sanders’ supervisor berates him for calling the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
“Why in the world would we ever call the FRA about anything? Unless I’m absolutely blatantly telling you to break the rules,” Sanders is asked.
“They know the rule book better than anybody,” he responded. “Have I ever called the FRA on you because you told me not to follow the rules like you do all the time? No.”
Kevin Gaylor, who is also a former BNSF track inspector, said he used to work with Sanders and was with him on a track inspecting trip when they both received a call from the boss.
“We were both called and criticized for putting out too many slow order defects,” Gaylor said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.
A “slow order” is railroad lingo for when a defect is so serious trains must drop their speed.
“Every track inspector on this system can tell you their experiences about the pressure that’s put on,” he said.
Gaylor said he was fired for other reasons and is currently challenging his termination through arbitration. He came forward after 5 INVESTIGATES exposed the troubling pattern at the railroad.
“I agreed to talk with you because I believe in rail safety,” he said. “Even though I don’t work there anymore. It’s something that affects all of us.”
The heightened awareness of railroad safety largely began back in February after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The cleanup of that environmental disaster continues seven months later.
Over the summer state and federal lawmakers demanded answers about the safety culture of the rail industry following the crisis in Ohio and other high-profile derailments.
It’s the same concern expressed by Don Sanders several years ago, according to one recording with his boss.
“With all the derailments that have happened this last year, I’m worried,” he said. In that same call, he told his boss that the FRA may find out that they’re not doing inspections properly.
“Then we’re all going to be in a (expletive) load of trouble, you know?” he said.
In another call, Sanders’ boss is heard belittling him for reporting a certain defect, and begged for help because his job was on the line.
“All I can say is I need your help right now to keep my ass from getting fired,” Sanders’ boss told him on the call.
“I need to just look the other way?” Sanders asks, referring to the reporting of defects.
“No. We just need to have a conversation,” his boss said.
That same supervisor not only kept his job, he was given a raise and a bonus of nearly $20,000, according to court records.
His review specifically cited a reduction in slow orders and the fact that “Don Sanders is no longer working for BNSF.”