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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Train derailment near Cheney may block road until Saturday

Cars derailed where the tracks cross Cheney- Spokane Road in Cheney on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)
Cars derailed where the tracks cross Cheney- Spokane Road in Cheney on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)

The rail line where a grain train jumped the tracks early Thursday has been targeted for major upgrades so it can safely handle today’s heavier locomotives and longer trains.

The derailment at Cheney-Spokane Road on the northeast side of Cheney left at least six cars off the track, including one that was tilting at a 20-degree angle.

The train was traveling slowly – no more than 10 mph – a crew worker said. No injuries were reported and no wheat was spilled.

Cheney-Spokane Road likely will be blocked until Saturday. After a contractor lifts the fully loaded grain hoppers back onto the rails, crews will fix damage to the rail line and crossing.

A detour is in place on a gravel section of Betz Road east of state Highway 904 and on a short section of Andrus Road.

The 30-car train derailed as it entered Cheney from Almira just before 1:30 a.m. Thursday on the state-owned short line.

Bob Westby, the state’s manager of the Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad line, said the state has been seeking funding to upgrade the track, ties and roadbed in the location where the derailment occurred.

Last year, the state asked the federal government for a $6 million TIGER grant (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) to upgrade the line from Cheney to the Geiger spur, a distance of just over 6 miles.

The grant was rejected, but it had to compete with nearly 800 other TIGER requests nationwide. It was one of three submitted by the state Department of Transportation.

“This project is one of our priorities,” Westby said.

The project is included in a $30 million budget request to the Legislature this session for rail needs. If approved, work on the line could begin later this year or next year.

The derailment underscores concerns about more frequent rail shipments, including potentially volatile crude oil traveling on mainline tracks.

John Taves, a Cheney city councilman, said the blockage of Cheney-Spokane Road would delay emergency vehicles and shows the risks facing the public from train accidents.

“People need to realize railroad traffic is increasing,” he said. “There has been a lot of concern.”

Bill Wolff, director of maintenance for the short line’s operator, said it was not clear what caused the derailment. He said cold weather puts stress on the track, making it vulnerable to fracture under a bad wheel, for example.

Once the line is cleared, inspectors can examine the track to determine a cause, Wolff said.

The state bought the line in 2004 to preserve rail access for rural communities in Eastern and Central Washington and to keep more truck traffic off state highways. At the time, state officials said $22 million in upgrades were needed.

The upgrades north of Cheney are requested in part so heavier BNSF Railway locomotives and 110-car trains can serve a new grain loader under construction north of Four Lakes. The new loader facility will have an “eight pack” concrete grain elevator, high-speed loading and a large circular staging track for filling the units. The elevator will be 190 feet tall.

The line, which dates to the late 1800s, is part of the former BNSF network in the region. The railroad sold the line in the mid-1990s to a private company, which then sold it to the state.

It’s operated under lease by the Eastern Washington Gateway Railroad.

The short line serves farm communities by hauling grain at favorable rates and industrial companies at Airway Heights. The 108-mile segment north and west of Cheney passes through Medical Lake, Reardan, Davenport, Creston, Wilbur, Almira, Hartline and Coulee City, the terminus.

Companion lines run south of Cheney and serve Rosalia, Oakesdale and points south, including a network of rail in the Palouse. The total track is 296 miles.

The derailment did not block access to shopping areas at Highway 904 and Cheney-Spokane Road. Roadblocks were set up ahead of the crossing in both directions.

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