Staying on the right track
It may not have been on the official President’s Day weekend schedule of events but it certainly caused a stir and drew a crowd.After all, it’s not every day that an 11,550-ton train careens off the rails, flipping cars on their sides and dumping coal onto the banks of the Colorado River. So it should come as no surprise that quite a few Glenwood and Eagle County residents (and some geese, too, apparently) took time out of their busy lives to hike, snowshoe or ski through Glenwood Canyon to take a peek at the big railway disaster of ’04.And why not?The Union Pacific coal-train derailment Feb. 15 certainly must have been an impressive show — if anyone happened to be watching. Eight cars, each capable of carrying more than 100 tons of coal, flipped over. In all, 45 cars ran off the track, generating enough force to shatter 60 cast-iron rail spikes.No one, fortunately, was injured in the wreck.But, if human life was spared, there were some who were worried about the wreck’s potential impact on the environment.”It’s one of those things when I think about it, it makes me stay awake at night staring at the ceiling,” said Ken Neubecker, Trout Unlimited’s new West Slope organizer.Neubecker remembers when a train car flipped in Glenwood Canyon and dumped corn syrup into the river a few years ago. But it’s only a matter of time, he said, until something more toxic spills into the waterway. Several cars full of sulfuric acid spilled into the groundwater near Camp Hale half a decade ago, Neubecker said, and it was a matter of luck that the acid didn’t make its way to the river on that occasion.Railroad officials erected a barrier around the diesel engines during the cleanup effort in case of a fuel leakage. But Neubecker wondered how quickly a team would be able to get on site in case of a more disastrous spill.”We need to be making sure that all along the rivers, where we have the highway and the trains, that we have adequately trained and equipped response teams,” he said. “We need hazmat teams that can get up there in a heartbeat.”Generally speaking, a train wreck spilling anything into a major waterway can be cause for concern but Trout Unlimited’s Melinda Kassen said the coal spill probably didn’t have a negative impact on the Colorado River’s fish or riparian life.The train that derailed was carrying coal from a mine near Delta to a refinery in St. Louis.”It’s not like coal is very toxic,” she said. “If you were to dump any amount of coal dust it would be like any other sediment spill, you would be choking the waterway. However, this coal was in lumps and it wasn’t a significant amount.”To put it simply, the wreck dumped a few rocks into the river — and the river’s already full of rocks.That’s not always the case, of course. Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said that, at any given time, a train may be carrying toxic material through Glenwood Canyon.”Any mainline track in America will have some chemicals on it some time, but the chances of a wreck in any specific spot are very low,” he said.There were 2,360 train accidents last year nationwide but none of them were on that particular stretch of rail through Glenwood Canyon. Bromley said the line between Moffat and Kremmling is scheduled for a major repair and overhaul this June.In any case, when there is an accident, it is likely to be near a river. Railways and roads tend to run alongside rivers in the Western U.S., especially in mountainous zones. Kassen said that any industrial transportation mode presents a potential hazard to the health of Colorado’s rivers and streams, but that railways tend to one of the safest ways to transport toxic material.”We’re a hell of a lot more worried about the salt coming off the highway than we are about the railroad,” she said. “Upkeep of the railroad can have sediment impact, but they don’t cover it with salt like they do with the highway.”Last year’s 2,360 train accidents included 723 train “wrecks,” a much more serious incident in Union Pacific’s classification system.And, although no one was injured in last week’s Glenwood Canyon wreck, the potential for loss of life is high when something goes wrong with a freight train.The most recent train fatality in this area was in September 2002, when a train smacked into a pickup truck and killed two men outside Rifle.When it comes to train-to-car competitions, cars lose by a longshot. Take a one ton truck and put it up against an 11,550-ton train going 45 mph and it’s no contest.This time, the damages were all economic. Rails were twisted, cars were crumpled, but no one was injured — and the Colorado River can apparently accommodate a few more rocks without any problem.
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