More trains derailed in Spokane County last year than in any other county in Washington, with nine accidents reported to the Federal Railroad Administration through November.
Most were minor mishaps, involving slow-moving trains in local rail yards. There were no serious injuries or hazardous material releases, but the derailments caused almost $850,000 in damage to rail equipment and lines.
Just one derailment was reported last year in Idaho’s Kootenai County.
Washington’s King County had the second-highest number of derailments with six. Landslides caused by heavy rainfall have disrupted train traffic on the state’s West Side this winter. Passenger train traffic has been suspended numerous times.
Although investigators have yet to discover any troubling patterns in the rate or severity of the mishaps, interest in rail safety has spiked across Eastern Washington following recent back-to-back weekend derailments near Sprague. No injuries were reported in either mishap, but federal investigators are still trying to determine what caused the accidents on the BNSF Railway Co. rail line. There were no train derailments last year in Lincoln County, the site of the two recent rail accidents.
An eastbound Amtrak train derailed on Jan. 28 about 45 miles west of Spokane, closing the track for two days for repairs. The 92 passengers were bused to Spokane where they stayed overnight before resuming their Empire Builder trip.
The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s daily passenger train between Chicago and Seattle and Portland. There were two derailments in the last year on the Portland-Spokane stretch, which is maintained by BNSF Railway. An Amtrak train derailed east of Vancouver, Wash., last year, injuring 36 people, according to Federal Railroad Administration reports.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the route is safe.
“We would not be operating our trains over anyone’s track including our own if there were any questions about the integrity of it,” Magliari said.
The Federal Railroad Administration, BNSF Railway and Amtrak refused to give any information about what caused the Jan. 28 derailment.
Just one week later, a freight train derailed one-eighth of a mile east of the first accident.
BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said, “We see no connection between the two.”
Melonas said both are still under investigation but that the derailments don’t point to any major problem with the track, which carries about 45 trains a day and is routinely inspected.
The Federal Railroad Administration is also investigating both derailments, said agency spokesman Warren Flatau. Early reports indicate the second derailment was caused by mechanical trouble with the train, not a problem with the track.
The agency oversees railroad operations across the country, investigating accidents and collecting operational statistics.
“Derailments are the most common type of reportable event,” said Flatau.
That’s because there’s a low threshold for reporting them – $6,800 in rail or equipment damage. Just a single wheel leaving the track can cost that much, he said.
Passenger train derailments occur far less frequently than freight train derailments because of the low percentage of passenger trains, Flatau said.
The last Amtrak accident in Spokane County was in 2001, when a train struck a car whose driver had attempted to bypass crossing gates, according to the Washington State Patrol. The car’s two occupants were killed; no one on the train was injured.
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