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Weather to blame for recent derailments?

Brendan Carl | The Vidette Some of the grain cars were empty by Tuesday, but others were being pumped out.Buy Photo
Brendan Carl | The Vidette Some of the grain cars were empty by Tuesday, but others were being pumped out.

The two derailments in Aberdeen were caused by the rain. And the derailment near Montesano was caused by the sun.

That’s the net conclusion made by inspectors with the rail operator Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad, Joel Haka, a vice president with parent company Genesee & Wyoming told the Port commissioners Tuesday morning, who basically blamed the pattern of rain and sun last month for the three derailments that happened within two weeks of each other.

A fourth derailment at Centralia on May 21, where no cars tipped over, was caused by a “track geometry misalignment,” Haka said.

Meantime, Haka said that three separate crews are working to improve the tracks between Centralia and the Port of Grays Harbor to ensure future derailments don’t happen, including improvements on five bridges. One of those crews is on site at the derailment off Devonshire Road near Montesano, where the grain cars have lingered since May 15. On Tuesday, crews were pumping fermented grain from the site — causing dust and grain to spill up into the tree tops and on neighboring houses. Neighbors have been complaining for weeks about the smell coming from the grain.

There had been some hope that all of the cars would be pumped and removed by Wednesday — but that looks unlikely.

A pad was being created for a large crane to come in and get the cars, which remained in ditches Tuesday afternoon.

Haka said that the derailment that occurred on April 29 on State Street in Aberdeen and on May 9 in front of the Olympic Gateway Mall in east Aberdeen were both caused by “mud spots where mud pushes up underneath the railroad ties.” He explained that water pooled in muddy spots, which compromises the integrity of the track.

“To us, it’s just plain water around here,” Port Commissioner Chuck Caldwell told Haka.

The derailment near Montesano was caused by “a sun kink — a thermal misalignment,” Haka said.

“There were wide variations in temperatures,” Haka said, noting the patterns of warm and cool had caused a mis-alignment that was never spotted by an inspector. He said an inspector thought he might have seen something near that spot before the derailment happened and the inspectors are now being retrained so they can spot the issues earlier.

Although the railroad had consistently praised their inspection process, even after the first two derailments, Haka admitted that their processes failed.

“Quite frankly, we’re embarrassed,” Haka told the port commissioners. “… This is highly unusual and unacceptable for us.”

They have been retraining their employees and maintenance personnel and they shut the railroad down for two days after the Montesano derailment happened. He said the Federal Railroad Administration, which has been investigating the series of derailments, has also identified some issues and given the railroad until the end of June to fix them.

“They reviewed us very, very hard after the May 15 derailment and gave us a number of defects to fix within 30 days, which will be accomplished by June 26,” Haka said. “We have two more to go.”

Haka said Genesee & Wyoming acquired the railroad 18 months ago and put in $4.3 million in improvements this year and pledged another $4.6 million next year — which will be three times as much money as previous owner RailAmerica put in the infrastructure.

“We feel by adding 60 percent more ties, hardening the railroad, and coming up with a very comprehensive three-year plan we will ensure we don’t have these incidents again because at the end of the day our business is to move freight,” Haka said. “We didn’t realize the state of the railroad and what it was and now we are fully cognizant of which this entails.”