Railroad Right of Entry: It's the Right Thing to Do

by Kristian Forslin, GISP

As a surveyor, what do you do when faced with a survey project adjoining a railroad corridor?  Rather, what is the right thing to do?  For your own safety, the safety of your crew(s), and the protection of your company, let’s hope you answer correctly.

Railroads document entries into the rail corridor with a “right of entry” or permit.  This right of access is an important safety tool for the railroads. The documentation makes its way down to the train engineers so that they know who will be near the track and at what times. This helps them be alert in the event they need to take action. 

Surveyors often consider right-of-entry permits to be a burden for any surveying project, especially considering that some projects are small, can be done in a day or two, and have a low profit margin.  But right-of-entry permits are required and need not impede your business.  They do involve planning, patience, and perhaps some additional expenses to your company or your client.  They might prolong the project and cost more in the long run, but planning for them can save you the hassle of railroad law enforcement, possible fines, serious injury, or even death.

What can you do to ease the pain? 
Determine if the project is near a railroad before you agree to do the work.  If a railroad runs through the project, a right of entry will be required by the railroad operator/owner. 

Find out which railroad you will need to deal with.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has a GIS application on its website (www.fra.dot.gov) under the heading Freight Railroading > Freight Data that can help show you which railroad companies operate certain lines. Often railroads themselves will also have GIS applications or at least a map showing their rail system on their website. 

Most major freight railroads, or Class 1 railroads, will have a real estate department that can usually help resolve any questions a surveyor may have about policies or specific properties along a railroad.  Short line railroads, on the other hand, may either be self-operated or will lease railroad operations to another company, so it may be more difficult to find the right department or contact information. However, these real estate or property departments will often be responsible for administering the right-of-entry permit process and can be an excellent resource to any surveyor with a project near a railroad.

Assess what fees and insurance will be needed. After doing some initial research about which railroad your project is adjacent to, you may find that some railroad operators charge a fee for right-of-entry permits.  There may also be additional fees in the event a flagman is needed to direct railroad traffic and keep your crew safe.  You should discuss these fees with your customer and include them clearly in your cost estimate in the event competing bids neglect to mention this. 

Most railroads also have specific insurance requirements you must meet before granting the right of entry.  The requirements may differ from what your company typically carries, so it is a good idea to check with your insurance company prior to submitting the application because many of the application fees are non-refundable.

Plan ahead. In a world of ATMs, pay at the pump, and on-demand movies, the railroad right-of-entry process will not provide instant gratification.  Large companies, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian National, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific, all have their right-of-entry forms available for download, but the application process can take weeks as it gets passed from insurance administrators to track supervisors.  Some of these are three-party agreements and can take a while to be mailed, signed, and sent back.  This should also be discussed with potential customers to avoid any “bad marks” to your reputation from a schedule perspective.  There is little use in accepting the job, being on site and ready to work, and then calling the railroad. 

It is important to note that the right-of-entry permit is not intended for you to merely gain access to the tracks themselves but to the entire rail corridor—whatever width that may be.  Although each railroad company and the respective rail corridor you are dealing with may differ somewhat in their policies and corridor widths, the trespassing and safety issue is generally the same.  The immediate vicinity of the railroad tracks and the tracks themselves are dangerous enough, but the entire rail corridor can be an unsafe environment for many reasons whether they are rail-related or not. 

If your survey project requires you to gain access to the rail corridor, then the right-of-entry permit is a necessity for your business processes.  Dave Brubaker, PLS of WSP Sells, Inc. states that, “It is essential to obtain railroad right-of-entry permits for every project that requires work within the right of way. I would rather experience schedule delays than put our employees at risk or expose the company to a potentially stiff penalty for trespassing without a permit.” 

Unfortunately, although some surveyors do participate in the process, it is quite common for a survey project to be estimated without considering the cost of a railroad right-of-entry permit.   It is also very likely that these same project estimations did not take into account the cost of possible schedule delays, penalties, or safety-related issues that Brubaker mentions. 
There is often a lot of grumbling and wincing when dealing with the railroad right-of-entry process. It exists for your legal protection and personal safety, which makes it the right thing to do.
Resources for right-of-entry application, instructions, and 
general information:
Burlington Northern Sante Fe: 
www.bnsf.com > Communities > FAQs > Permits / Real Estate
Canadian National: 
www.cn.ca > About CN > Public 
Issues > CN Right of Way Insurance Requirements
www.csx.com > Customers > 
Non-Freight Services > Property/Real Estate > Permitting: Utility 
Installations and Rights of Entry
Kansas City Southern: 
www.kcsouthern.com > Real Estate
Norfolk Southern: 
www.nscorp.com > Customers > Real Estate > Property Access
Union Pacific: 
www.up.com > About Us > 
Real Estate & Utility Inspections
American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association: 

Kristian Forslin, GISP is the GIS coordinator for the North Carolina Railroad Company. He is responsible for geospatial activities on the NCRR rail corridor as well as a surveyor outreach program. He is also an editorial board member for this magazine.

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