ANOTHER DERAILMENT: Railcar plunges from overpass to street below

Repost from The Houston Chronicle

Railcar plunges from overpass to street below

No injuries after pair of railcars tumble, but new concerns arise
By Dug Begley and Dale Lezon, June 11, 2015 11:22pm
Thursday's derailment of two train cars along Old Katy Road forced traffic to be detoured while authorities investigated and brought in crews to lift the cars back onto the tracks. Photo: Cody Duty, Staff / © 2015 Houston Chronicle
Thursday’s derailment of two train cars along Old Katy Road forced traffic to be detoured while authorities investigated and brought in crews to lift the cars back onto the tracks. Photo: Cody Duty, Staff / © 2015 Houston Chronicle

A railcar tumbled from an overpass onto a Houston street Thursday, the latest in a rising number of derailments in Harris County, which is home to a network of rail corridors carrying an increasing volume of freight, including millions of gallons of hazardous cargo.

The two cars that plunged from a bridge spanning Old Katy Road near Washington Avenue around 8:30 a.m – one of which landed on the street – were carrying soybeans and plastic pellets and caused no injuries.

But between 2 million and 6 million gallons of crude oil and other hazardous chemicals travel through the county by rail each week, some of it on the same line, according to the Department of Public Safety.

And, although rail shipments of crude have declined along with the price recently, the practice still is drawing intense scrutiny after devastating derailments elsewhere and because, in Texas, crude rides the rails with little oversight.

Officials of Kansas City Southern Railway Company, which operated the 84-car train, said the train involved in Thursday’s derailment was en route from Beaumont to Kendleton with two crew members aboard when the cars derailed.

Company spokesman C. Doniele Carlson said nine to 11 cars jumped the tracks. The other derailed cars included automobile haulers as well as boxcars loaded with freight.

Traffic on Old Katy Road was detoured while authorities investigated the accident and brought in crews and equipment to lift the railcars back onto the tracks. Trains also had to avoid the area, forcing more freight to move along the eastern and western ends of Houston on other rail lines.

Although news images showing two locomotives led some to believe two trains had collided, only one was involved in the incident, said Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks. No other trains were in the vicinity.

Investigators are trying to determine what led to the accident, DeGraff said.

Along with rail traffic – which has increased since 2009 but lately dipped because of a slowdown in oil exploration – collisions and derailments are increasing. Through March 31, the latest information available, railroads reported six collisions and six derailments in Harris County, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. In the first three months of 2014, only two collisions and two derailments were reported.

Many factors can lead to rail accidents, and federal data includes some incidents that would have virtually no effect outside day-to-day railroad operations, such as minor derailments in sorting yards where railcars are transferred.

According to federal reports, of the 26 rail incidents that did not involve a highway crossing in Harris County last year, 14 were caused by equipment factors such as flaws in the tracks, signal malfunctions and faulty railcar and locomotive parts. A dozen were caused by human error.

Prior maintenance and inspection of the 1,500-foot area of track where officials believe the derailment occurred did not indicate any flaws, DeGraff said. Tracks ties – the beams on which the track lies – were replaced two years ago.

Trains are expected to carry a growing amount of cargo to and from the Houston area. Based on a 2013 report by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, tonnage of rail shipments is predicted to climb from the 2007 level of 152 million tons to 218 million tons by 2035.

Much of that growth, slowed by the economic downturn from 2008 to 2011, has resumed. More frequent and longer trains are an increasingly common sight at some crossings.

Despite the increase, researchers and local officials said they were not concerned that more trains would lead to disastrous results. Railroads are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in projects meant to move the freight and improve track conditions.

“UP is making lots of money right now, and they are investing money in their track,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, chairman of the Texas Freight Advisory Committee.

Last month, Union Pacific said it had projects totaling $383 million planned to start in 2015 in Texas alone. Among them is replacement of 178,000 railroad ties in Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Walker counties and new rail on three routes, including from Loop 610 and Hardy Street to near the University of Houston campus.

BNSF, based in Fort Worth, plans $223 million worth of upgrades across Texas this year.

The investment is good business, said Allan Rutter, a division head of the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute’s freight mobility program.

“Track that isn’t carrying railcars isn’t very good,” Rutter said.

Unlike highways and public transit, which many argue are strained to handle the growth in population, jobs and goods movement, railroad tracks are owned and operated by private companies.

“They are not dependent on waiting for someone to give them money,” Rutter said, referring to the political process at the federal, state and local levels that must precede highway and transit expansion.