Puget Sound & Pacific faces 4th Derailment in three weeks

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Pete Caster | The Chronicle A 12-foot section of ripped up rail sits near the Foron Road crossing north of Centralia as rail officials responded to a possible derailment north of Centralia early Thursday morning. While a 12-foot section of rail was severely damaged, no train cars were flipped over. It does not appear any materials or products were spilled.
(Pete Caster | The Chronicle) A 12-foot section of ripped up rail sits near the Foron Road crossing north of Centralia as rail officials responded to a possible derailment north of Centralia early Thursday morning. While a 12-foot section of rail was severely damaged, no train cars were flipped over. It does not appear any materials or products were spilled.

Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad saw its fourth derailment in about three weeks last week, this time near Centralia.

Two empty lumber cars and nine cars of vegetable oil on an 85-car train slipped off the track north of Centralia on May 21, Genesee & Wyoming spokesman Michael Williams said.

There were no injuries, damage to the rail cars and no spilled product or hazardous materials involved. However, more and more questions are being asked about safety procedures on the Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad.

“An infrequently used industrial crossing was blocked, but no vehicles were turned away,” Williams said.

About six rail-car-lengths of track were repaired Thursday. The cause of the minor derailment is under investigation by the railroad, Williams said, and so far they don’t have any indication the condition of the track caused the problem.

“Incidents with less than $10,000 damage are not reportable to the Federal Railroad Administration; this was below that threshold,” Williams added.

The other three recent derailments in Grays Harbor County are under investigation by the FRA.

On May 15, 11 grain cars came off the track near Devonshire Road outside Montesano. It was the day after track re-opened following a seven-car derailment May 9 in Aberdeen at the Heron Street entrance to the Olympic Gateway Mall. Before that, five cars derailed at South Washington Street just south of State Street April 29.

Railroad Administration Public Affairs Specialist Mike England said he can’t comment on ongoing investigations and declined to give an estimate on how long the investigations might take.

“That’s hard to say, the length of investigations varies widely depending on the severity, complexity, etc.,” he said. “They take an average of six months, but I don’t think this one will take that long.”

Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad has said they’ve done inspections up and down the tracks. They’ve said that after each derailment. But, then another derailment has happened.

G&W Senior Vice President of Engineering Scott Linn said the railroad employs two inspectors, who are supervised by a road master.

“You have to physically traverse the entire line, and usually it’s an individual, and he has to have certain qualifications to be able to inspect track. He goes in a high rail vehicle, like a pick-up truck,” traveling from 5 to 10 mph.

“He has a whole set of FRA requirements that deal with the distance between the rails — that’s called gauge,” Linn continued. “There’s certain tolerances that are allowed from a design perspective for gauge” as well as alignment, whether one rail is lower than the other.

“If the standard is beyond what is allowed for 25 mph he either has to reduce the speed to where he is in compliance, or he has to fix the track to where he is in compliance, or he has to close the track,” Linn said. “He has no choice, he has to do that. He doesn’t have to ask anybody.”

Tracks are also inspected with geometry cars, which simulate the weight of a laden car and take measurements of the same thing an inspector would. Inspectors watch the results in real time.

“Almost like a heartbeat chart,” Linn said. “As it goes down the track, it’s got little lines that show where you’re in compliance and not in compliance. If they come across something that’s alarming or way out of standard, they’ll stop and look at it.”

In order to determine which tracks the Federal Railroad Administration should inspect, the agency uses a “safety allocation model.”

“It factors in a lot of things,” FRA spokesman England said. “It factors in, obviously, the amount of rail traffic, what’s being shipped, is it oil versus grain, population of a particular area. … It takes several factors into account and based on that we determine how we allocate our manpower.”

FRA inspectors will audit the inspection reports and do “spot checks” of the track, England said.

Local inspectors “have to keep those records, every week they’re doing the inspections,” Linn said. The federal inspectors review those reports at least annually.

“They’ll make sure you’re getting the milepost you’re supposed to, you’re complying with the frequency you’re supposed to do,” Linn said.

The PSAP track was last inspected by the FRA April 29, the same day as the first derailment in Aberdeen. Before that, it was inspected on Jan. 24, 23, 22, 8 and 7.

“Right now they’re transporting grain,” England said. “If they were to start transporting hazardous materials or oil, obviously that track would be subject to greater scrutiny by the FRA.”