Derailment not human error: report cites ‘track geometry’ issues

Repost from The Missoulian

MRL report cites ‘track geometry’ issues in July derailment of Boeing fuselages

By Kim Briggeman, November 6, 2014
A raft floats by Boeing 737 fuselages on the Clark Fork River during recovery efforts in July. TOM BAUER, Missoulian

Montana Rail Link has ruled out human error as the cause of a July 3 train derailment that destroyed six Seattle area-bound Boeing 737 fuselages along the Clark Fork River in Mineral County.

Simulations performed by a contractor hired by MRL were inconclusive, but company spokesman Jim Lewis said Wednesday they “suggest a track geometry issue.”

Railroads are required to conduct an investigation after derailments and file their findings with the Federal Railroad Administration.

An FRA spokesman said Wednesday the agency’s own investigation of the July wreck is ongoing and could take anywhere from two months to a year. The report by the railroad company is used as “another piece of evidence,” Mike Booth said.

The 19-car derailment occurred in a remote stretch a mile above the mouth of Fish Creek on the south bank of the Clark Fork River. The ruined fuselages were shipped a few miles downstream to a landing at Rivulet, where they were scrapped out later in July.

The initial investigation by Montana Rail Link, the Missoula-based railroad operated by industrialist Dennis Washington’s Washington Cos., found no evidence of operator error either on the train or in the loading or stacking of the train cars.

The fuselages themselves were shipped from Wichita, Kansas, where they’re fabricated by Spirit AeroSystems.

Safety and accident prevention have always been a top priority of Montana Rail Link, Lewis said.

“We have numerous employee safety programs, as well as rigorous track inspection policies,” he said. “In addition, we invest millions of dollars in track maintenance annually to operate the safest railroad possible.”

Boeing continues to use the Wichita company as its sole supplier of fuselages, sending the blue-green plane shells more than 1,500 miles to Renton, Washington. Almost half the route follows BNSF and MRL tracks in southern Montana.

Parts of Boeing 777 and 747 hulls were also involved in the wreck but were undamaged. They were sent on their way to a separate plant in Everett, Washington.

The smaller 737s are in unprecedented demand. Two assembly lines in Renton each completes a 737 roughly every working day, a total of 42 a month. Boeing has announced it will open another line next year in the same plant to build the 737 Max, upping the total capacity to 60 a month.