Amtrak Returns to Normal through Sierra Mountains

November 13, 2006

Amtrak trains returned to a normal schedule through the Sierra Nevada mountains Saturday, two days after the fatal derailment of a runaway maintenance train spilled thousands of gallons of diesel and hydraulic fluid and damaged 600 feet of track in a thickly forested canyon.

The first freight train rolled through the accident scene by midmorning Friday. Crews worked the rest of the day repairing a parallel set of tracks that was also damaged in the accident about 60 miles east of Sacramento.

The crash backed up freight and passenger rail traffic both ways along the busy east-west corridor.

“Yesterday they had some delays just because of congestion,” Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell said on Saturday. “They have normal operations today.”

Two employees of the train operator, South Carolina-based Harsco Track Technologies, were killed Thursday as the train sped up on a steep mountain descent, then flipped off the tracks at a curve. Frantic efforts to slow the train failed, eight surviving crew members told investigators Friday.

The Placer County sheriff-coroner’s office said Saturday that the identities of the two workers will not be released until at least Monday, pending notification of family members.

Investigators led by the National Transportation Safety Board on Saturday interviewed a Union Pacific conductor who was on the train, said Dave Watson, the board’s investigator in charge. The conductor’s testimony matched the accounts of other crew members questioned Friday, Watson said in a telephone interview.

On Sunday, they plan to examine the brakes and other equipment on two locomotives and two other rail cars that have been moved to a Union Pacific rail yard. They also hope to retrieve information from the train’s so-called events recorder, similar to a jetliner’s black box, after initial attempts failed.

“They don’t look damaged. There’s no impact damage. We tried to download them and could not, and we don’t know why. There may not be any data on them,” Watson said.

If the second attempt fails Sunday, the recorders will be removed and sent to experts to see if they can find the missing data, he said.

A final report on what caused the crash isn’t likely for about a year, Watson said.

The train carried 11,000 gallons of diesel and 6,000 gallons of hydraulic fluid, along with acetylene, oxygen and propane. It was transporting a piece of maintenance equipment called a grinding machine from Reno, Nev., to the Sacramento suburb of Roseville when it derailed about two miles south of Interstate 80 near Baxter.

The crash spilled thousands of gallons of fuel and other chemicals. Crews hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed fuel-soaked leaves and forest debris for 400 yards downhill from the crash scene, racing to beat a Saturday rain storm that could wash the chemicals into the American River, said Dan Suter, who was overseeing the cleanup for the EPA.

The maintenance train’s purpose is to smooth out worn-down sections of track. It was likened to a “rolling mechanic’s shop,” with a tanker carrying diesel fuel for the locomotive and the other rail cars carrying equipment and drums filled with an assortment of fuels and fluids.

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