November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail

Repost from The Chico Enterprise-Record

November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail

By Ashley Gebb, 04/13/15, 5:11 PM PDT

Twelve rail cars full of corn derailed Nov. 25 in the Feather River Canyon. The accident was caused by a broken rail. Courtesy of Jake Miille

No railroad cars reached the Feather River after the Nov. 25 derailment, but corn did. Courtesy of Jake Miille

Belden >> A November train derailment in the Feather River Canyon was caused by a broken rail, the Enterprise-Record has learned.

As Union Pacific Railroad prepares to replace more than 36 miles of track between Keddie and Lake Oroville, spokesman Francisco Castillo has confirmed a detail fracture caused by cracks led to the derailment of 12 train cars that tumbled into the canyon Nov. 25. The repairs are unrelated and were planned before the accident, Castillo said, part of a greater effort to improve rail safety as transport of crude oil continues to rise.

“Though serious accidents are rare, we recognize that there are still risks associated with rail transportation, just as there are risks with any other mode of transportation. That’s why we follow strict safety practices and work tirelessly to achieve our goal of zero derailments,” he said in an email.

In the early morning of Nov. 25, a westbound train derailed near Virgilia, upstream of Belden, causing 12 loaded hoppers to slide down an embankment toward the North Fork Feather River below, stopping just before the water. No one was injured but the carloads of corn were spread across the hillside and into the river, causing $640,049 in equipment damage and $85,786 in damage to the track.

At the time, emergency officials said the incident underscored the risks associated with train transport in the canyon.

“It’s a concern for us because it shows there is still a history of derailments in the county, especially in the canyon,” Butte County Emergency Services Officer John Gulserian said Monday of the November derailment.

Though the incident occurred in Plumas County, the same railroad lines continue into Butte County, along with whatever the trains are hauling — be it corn or crude oil. The derailment of any such materials can have devastating implications for the water, the environment and wildlife, as well as create a fire danger, Gulserian said.

Because of the remote area and the nature of the spills, the county is not always equipped to deal with the accident and has to wait for other resources, he said.

The canyon area as a whole tends to see a derailment every three to five years, with most similar to the November incident, where only a few cars go off the tracks, he said. The last derailment Gulserian could remember spilled a load of neutralized alcohol near Storrie.

Track failures are linked to 31 percent of all train accidents, and even though such incidents are becoming less common, prevention remains critical, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike Booth. It’s especially important with a 400 percent increase in more volatile Bakken crude oil being shipped out of the North Dakota region.

“It travels to nearly every state and it travels long distances,” he said. “To prevent accidents due to increased traffic going longer distances, we have increased inspection on crude oil routes. … Since the Lac-Mégantic accident two years ago in Canada, it was a bit of a wake-up call for everyone.”

The 2013 incident occurred when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in a fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-seven people were killed, and dozens of buildings were destroyed or critically contaminated.

Railroads are required by law to inspect and maintain their equipment in good repair, and the Federal Railroad Administration ensures that by auditing records and doing spot inspections, Booth said. It also works with the Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which has taken more than two dozen actions to increase the safety of crude oil transport.

“And we are looking for more ways to make it even safer,” Booth said. “We don’t want to have a single derailment …”

In the past 10 years, Castillo said derailments have decreased 38 percent, largely in part to a derailment and risk reduction process, which includes using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections, tracking acoustic vibration on wheels to anticipate failures before they happen, and performing real-time analysis of every rail car via trackside sensors. Employees also participate in rigorous, regular safety training programs that include the identification and prevention of derailments, and Union Pacific trains first responders on ways to minimize the impact of derailment in their communities.

Track maintenance projects are part of Union Pacific’s annual maintenance work and scheduled three to five years in advance, Castillo said. From 2005-14, the railroad invested more than $31 billion in its network and operations to support the transportation infrastructure, and it is in the middle of $26.1 million in improvements in the Feather River Canyon area.

The first project is complete and included replacement of 15.2 miles of rail just east of Oroville. The second project, scheduled to begin next month and be complete in August, will replace 36.3 miles of rail at various locations between Keddie and Lake Oroville.

“The Feather River Canyon upgrades will enhance the safe transport of commodities we transport through the canyon,” Castillo said.

Union Pacific and other entities have been working with Butte County recently to improve safety, Gulserian said. That effort included an exercise March 11 with a simulated train derailment near Chico that provided the opportunity to practice alert notifications, areas of authority, staging materials and alerting the public. Another simulation has been scheduled.

Gulserian said it’s encouraging to hear news of rail replacement, as safety and security of hazardous materials is as much a priority for the county as it is for the railroad.

 

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