Union Pacific fights fines over drug seizures on the UP roads

EL PASO — A border security program to X-ray every train rolling into the US has prompted as much as $400 million in fines against US railroads, which are held responsible for bales of marijuana, bundles of cocaine, and anything else criminals cram into the boxcars as they roll through Mexico.

Union Pacific, the largest rail shipper on the US-Mexico border and the largest recipient of fines, refuses to pay more than $388 million in fines, up from $37.5 million three years ago when the screening began. In federal litigation the railroad argues that it is being punished for something it cannot control: criminals stashing illegal drugs in railcars in Mexico.

“Our actions should be applauded, not punished,’’ said company vice president Bob Grimaila. Union Pacific spends $3.6 million a year on its own police officers and has spent another $72.5 million supporting federal efforts on the border, building observation towers, training federal law enforcement officers, adding fencing and lighting at border crossings, and developing computer profiles to identify drug traffickers.

The Justice Department, however, says Union Pacific, which owns 26 percent of Mexico’s railroad Ferromex, is responsible for controlling the trains in Mexico.

The railroad’s argument may be gaining traction: The federal government recently signed a partial settlement with the railroad, releasing 10 seized railcars in exchange for $40,000, and agreed to return to negotiations with the railroad, according to court records.