Feds award $1.1M to Twin Cities & Western railroad for safety upgrade
New safety system would automatically stop trains and prevent collisions.
By Jim Spencer Star Tribune AUGUST 12, 2016 — 6:46PM
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison announced the grant Friday.
The money will put in place and test a positive train control system, a technology that stops trains automatically to avoid crashes.
The controls are supposed to go on mainline routes that carry hazardous materials or commuters. They use sensors to remotely monitor speed and movement in order to head off train-to-train collisions and derailments.
By federal law, American railroads have until December 2018 to install the safety system on roughly 70,000 miles of track.
Klobuchar, Franken, McCollum and Ellison have been active in rail safety promotion because of the potential risks of derailments or crashes involving trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota across Minnesota.
Some of those shipments go through the heart of the Twin Cities. Oil train traffic has increased markedly in recent years along with the North Dakota oil boom.
“With increased freight train traffic on our rail lines, ensuring the safety of communities along rail routes remains a top priority,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
Franken said in a statement that he has talked to “many community leaders who share my concern for the safety of railcars that travel through our Minnesota communities, and I’m glad that the Transportation Department is listening.”
Associated Press Published 3:12 pm, Tuesday, May 17, 2016
WASHINGTON — The speeding Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia last year, killing eight people, most likely ran off the rails because the engineer was distracted by word of a nearby commuter train getting hit by a rock, federal investigators concluded Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board also put some of the blame on the railroad industry’s decades-long delay in installing Positive Train Control, equipment that can automatically slow trains that are going over the speed limit.
Engineer Brandon Bostian was apparently so focused on the rock-throwing he heard about over the radio that he lost track of where he was and accelerated full-throttle to 106 mph as he went into a sharp curve with a 50 mph limit, investigators said at an NTSB hearing convened to pinpoint the cause of the May 12, 2015, tragedy. About 200 people aboard the Washington-to-New York train were injured.
“He went, in a matter of seconds, from distraction to disaster,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.
Bostian, who has been suspended without pay since the crash for speeding, did not attend the hearing. He and his lawyer did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.
Had Positive Train Control been in use along the stretch of track, “we would not be here today,” said Ted Turpin, an NTSB investigator.
“Unless PTC is implemented soon,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart warned, “I’m very concerned that we’re going to be back in this room again, hearing investigators detail how technology that we have recommended for more than 45 years could have prevented yet another fatal rail accident.”
Amtrak noted that Positive Train Control is already in place on most of its portion of the Northeast Corridor and that it has also installed inward-facing video cameras on locomotives.
The problem of people throwing rocks at trains is so common that train crews have a term for it: “getting rocked.” But it is a danger railroads are almost powerless to stop. No one was ever arrested in the rock-throwing in Philadelphia.
Investigators said they believe Bostian was accelerating because he thought he had already passed the sharp Frankford Junction curve. After the curve, the tracks open up into a straightaway where the speed limit is 110 mph.
During the investigation, authorities ruled out cell phone use on Bostian’s part, as well as drugs or alcohol.
Derailment: Should rail tracks have fence sensors in landslide prone Niles Canyon?
By Matthias Gafni, Sam Richards and Thomas Peele, 03/08/2016 07:09:45 PM PST
SUNOL — A deep stretch of Niles Canyon where a crowded commuter train from San Jose derailed Monday night is fraught with landslides, yet it lacks a system to alert engineers that their path may be blocked by mud or toppled trees.
But officials — who called it an “absolute miracle” no one was killed — said that may change.
Altamont Commuter Express Spokesman Brian Schmidt said the transit agency, which resumes service Wednesday, will talk with track owner Union Pacific about installing fencing in the area with sensors that set off alerts when hit by trees, mudslides or falling rocks. That is similar to what has been done along the Feather River Canyon in northeastern California and in western Colorado. The sensors have been available but are not widely used, and there are none in the slide-prone Niles Canyon.
“If there’s any place in the Bay Area to have a landslide, Niles Canyon is it,” said Jonathan Stock, a USGS geologist who has studied the area. “It has a long history of things going bump in the night.”
The first two cars of ACE train No. 10, with 196 passengers aboard, derailed between Sunol and Fremont around 7:15 p.m. Monday, with the lead car tumbling into rain-swollen Alameda Creek. As water filled the partially submerged car, passengers frantically worked to free injured riders.
Nine people were injured. Four of the injuries were serious, though not life-threatening, and one patient — a 24-year-old man — remained hospitalized Tuesday in good condition.
Using two cranes, crews started pulling the submerged lead car out of the creek on Tuesday afternoon, while the other four cars were moved down the track.
Federal Railroad Administration investigators, as well as those from the California Public Utilities Commission and track owner Union Pacific, are involved in the investigation. It was unclear Tuesday whether the landslide broadsided the train as it rolled past at 35 mph, in the 40 mph zone, or if the slide happened beforehand and the train crashed directly into the debris. Other trains went through the canyon earlier Monday and apparently did not report problems.
Christopher Chow, a PUC spokesman, said the agency sent two inspectors to the scene Monday night, and they remained on-site late Tuesday.
“Their focus is on identifying the root cause of the incident and collecting evidence to determine if there were any violations by ACE,” Chow said. “As part of the investigation, we will be reviewing relevant records, including our last inspection of the track.”
FRA accident data identifies 325 train derailments in California between 2011 and 2015. All but eight involved freight trains. Three people were injured, data show. There were no fatalities.
Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, a member of the ACE board, agreed it’s time to talk about installing slide fences with sensors.
“One thing we can’t ignore is technology, and we have to continue to look at what’s available, and use what’s appropriate,” Haggerty said Tuesday.
Stock reviewed photos of the hillside above the crash site and said it appeared that the unnaturally steep slope created when the line was built, aided by heavy rain, caused the debris flow and tree fall that investigators say likely caused the train to derail.
“That’s an old cut from when it was blasted for the railroad to go through,” said Stock. “It appears to be a small, thin failure off a modified piece of landscape.”
With tracks historically built on the flattest possible ground, often near rivers in valleys and canyons alongside steep hills, “washouts” in the industry are fairly common, said Gus Ubaldi, an Ohio-based engineer who specializes in railroads.
Even with frequent inspections, washouts are nearly impossible to predict, and “can happen in an instant. It’s an act of God,” he said.
Union Pacific inspects its track through Niles Canyon at least twice weekly, Schmidt said, with additional inspections done when storms, earthquakes or other weather- or geology-related events occur, as required by federal regulations. Locomotive engineers operating freight and passenger trains through the canyon also keep an eye out for any slide potential, Schmidt added. In addition, state and federal regulations require regular vegetation maintenance.
The decision to halt service can be made if a storm is deemed a threat to train crew or passenger safety. All UP tracks in California are subject to a “very robust” inspection process, and the tracks had gone through an additional “stormwatch” inspection just ahead of this weekend’s rainstorms, said Francisco Castillo, a Union Pacific spokesman.
Because there were no other slides reported from the recent storms — the area received about 2.13 inches of rain since March 1, according to the National Weather Service — Stock speculated that the ground movement started from a saturated tree falling, pulling debris down onto the tracks with it. An Alameda County sheriff’s deputy said the smell of eucalyptus, a tree prone to fall during landslides, was overwhelming at the scene Monday night. He also saw the tracks littered with shards of tree branches.
Whatever brought the hillside down was not unusual for the area.
Stock said he’s found at least five newspaper articles on major slides since the 1860s impacting rail traffic. In December, the Alameda County Public Works department issued a study concluding “the entire Niles Canyon corridor is notorious for rockslides and landslides, which often activate during rainfall or seismic events.” A 2004 California Geological Survey study reached the same conclusion.
The Pacific Locomotive Association, which runs the six-mile historical Niles Canyon Railway on the north side of the canyon, fights mudslides and related issues every few years. The most recent was on Christmas Eve 2013, said President Henry Baum; the mudslide didn’t cover the rails but diverted water runoff that undermined the track and closed it temporarily.
“We spend a lot of time and money cleaning up small slides making sure they don’t turn into big ones,” he said.
The only landslide in Niles Canyon that Schmidt said he could remember since ACE started operations in October 1998 was a small one several years ago encountered by a Union Pacific freight train. That train did not derail, he said.
Many years before ACE started operations, a landslide damaged a part of the current-day ACE line alongside Old Altamont Pass Road about a mile west of the old Altamont summit. That resulted in a “shoofly” built around the slide area, a little curve in the track that became permanent.
14 hurt as commuter train derails — no ACE service Tuesday
Sheriff: “A miracle nobody was killed.”
By Jill Tucker, Jenna Lyons, and Michael Cabanatuan Updated 7:18 am, Tuesday, March 8, 2016
An Altamont Corridor Express train full of Silicon Valley commuters derailed Monday evening northeast of Fremont, injuring 14 passengers — four seriously — as the first car apparently slammed into a tree that had fallen across the tracks before plunging into a rain-swollen creek in rural Niles Canyon, authorities said.
The front car of the ACE commuter train was half submerged in the fast-running Alameda Creek, its lights still on, as passengers were evacuated. The second car also derailed but remained upright, officials said.
Emergency personnel were dispatched to the scene just before 7:30 p.m., and early reports indicated the eastbound train hit a downed tree, according to Capt. Joe Medina of the Alameda County Fire Department.
Of those transported to hospitals, four passengers suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries and five suffered minor injuries, according to fire officials. There were cases of head trauma and back pain, among other complaints. About 12 people were in the first car that derailed into the creek, officials said.
Emergency crews broke windows to evacuate some of the passengers from the first car as others scrambled up the south bank of the creek to escape the 55-degree water. There was chaos and confusion as the first rescuers arrived, with screaming heard over police radios, said Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly
“We’re very lucky,” Kelly said. “It’s absolutely a miracle that nobody was killed.”
The No. 10 train, which runs from San Jose to Stockton, was due to arrive in Pleasanton at 7:30 p.m.
Passenger Tanner McKenzie was in the second car, which derailed and then slid for what seemed a long time through the mud, he said. People were screaming.
“There was an impact, the power went out,” he said. “I was just sure at any moment we were going to flip over.”
All passengers were evacuated by 8:30 p.m. and were assessed by emergency responders.
A 52-year-old woman was transported to Eden Medical Center, where she was in stable condition, hospital officials said. Others were taken to Washington Hospital in Fremont.
The agency said no trains would run Tuesday as they clear the tracks and investigate the crash.
John Wong, 49, of Pleasanton was in the last car of the train, traveling home from his work as an engineer at a semiconductor company in Sunnyvale, when the train derailed.
“There were a couple of huge jerks and then the train stopped,” he said by phone.
He and the other passengers, stunned by the jolt, waited for about a half hour before someone told them that the train had derailed and evacuated the car. He joined about 200 other passengers standing on Highway 84 as emergency vehicles whizzed back and forth.
“We were the last car, so we didn’t really see the event, but the first car landed in the creek. We saw several ambulances leaving the scene.”
“They gave us blankets, but no beer, no food,” said Wong as he stood out on the roadway at 10 p.m. “I wouldn’t mind getting a shot of whiskey, that’s for sure.”
At least two of the cars that remained on the tracks were unstable, according to emergency crews.
There were an estimated 214 people on the train, according to initial reports. Uninjured passengers were transported to the Alameda County Fairgrounds on buses.
Passengers, many in tears and wrapped in blankets, embraced relatives who had been waiting up to two hours.
One, who only gave his first name, George, said he was among the passengers in the top seats of the first car. At impact, he frantically tried to hang on to anything as the car tilted off the tracks and nose dived into the bank.
“I just prayed that it was over soon,” he said, adding that passengers stepped over shattered glass to escape. “We climbed our way out.”
Niles Canyon Road was closed to traffic due to the incident, and the closure was expected to last for at least two days, Kelly said.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the accident.
The train’s engine was in the last car pushing, rather than pulling it, officials said. It was unclear whether ACE staffers were in the front car.
Heavy rain was reported in the San Jose region at the time of the crash. The previous train, the No. 8, traveled along the same track about an hour before the crash.