New Railway System Raises Concerns Within Indian Country

A new railroad system to be implemented by the end of next year has raised questions about the protection of tribal sacred sites and other concerns.

Railroad lines run all over Indian country – from New York to Washington, from the Dakotas through Oklahoma and clear down to the gulf of Louisiana. Native lands in Oregon, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin, even Alaska; just about everywhere tribal people are familiar with the sound of trains rolling down the tracks as they cut across their reservations, pueblos and villages.

“We have tracks going all across Osage County because of the oil production that began here over a century ago. There are quite a few rail lines that run through the county,” said Dr. Andrea Hunter, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a new system being implemented by the nation’s major railroads. The system is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speeds and human error, unauthorized train movements in work zones, and the movement of trains through switches left in the wrong position. PTC is expected to be implemented over a total of approximately 70,000 miles of track and will involve approximately 20,000 locomotives.

The system will use GPS technology to track a train's location and speed by enabling real-time information sharing between trains, rail wayside devices, and regional headquarters. Ultimately, the PTC system will be able to stop a train before it passes a signal displaying a stop indication, or before moving to an improper line switch, thereby averting a collision.


PTC is the result of the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008, and requires that all Class I freight and passenger railroads install the new safety system by the end of next year. In particular, railroad lines that carry poison or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are being targeted.

Of course, many rail lines run through traditional tribal lands and to install the GPS system new ”wayside poles” have to be erected along the railways. Questions have been raised about the protection of tribal sacred sites, burial grounds, historic properties, cultural resources and the environmental footprints that will be left by the massive construction of 20,000 more poles.

“Our ancestral territory runs throughout 13 states, so that’s where we become involved with Positive Train Control,” said Dr. Hunter. “We extend back up into the Ohio River Valley and portions of the states that border the Ohio River and then down through Illinois, Arkansas and across out into the plains. There are 13 states that we work with as far as cultural resource management.”

Railroad officials, including representatives from Norfolk Southern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, attended the National Congress of American Indians convention in Atlanta in October. A representative from Norfolk Southern gave a short presentation at a meeting of the NCAI Subcommittee on Human, Religious and Cultural Concerns. He pledged to involve tribes at every level of the PTC and pole installation process that pertains to them.

Tribal members and especially Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) are wondering if this is a big time U.S. industry having a seemingly unprecedented consciousness to reach out to tribes in an effort to be more sensitive to sacred sites, or is it simply window dressing to give the impression of more sensitivity to Native cultural resources and historic properties. According to an FCC spokesperson, the railroads have already erected about 10,000 of these poles without following the statute which requires that tribes have the opportunity to review the construction. “The FCC entered into Memorandums of Understanding with the seven major freight railroads to create a $10 million Cultural Resource Fund to address the situation of several thousand wayside pole PTC antenna structures that were constructed without any preservation review,” commented Geoffrey Blackwell of the Chickasaw Nation, Chief of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy. “Affected tribes are eligible to apply to a third party (the MICA Group) for grants to support several different types of cultural resource efforts by their THPOs or cultural resource officers.”

An FCC official explained that the railroads are building their own wireless network and the poles are basically 60-foot miniature cell phone towers. The FCC oversees the spectrum they need for the network. They have to follow FCC rules in dealing with the states and tribes in reviewing the construction. Tribes can go to the Federal Railroad Administration website to view maps of the counties in which (their tribe) is located to see the filings of the railroads, so they can be able to review construction.”