Freight train mishap chokes rails, traffic
Derailment prevents MetroRail service, blocks Seventh Street
A new piece of equipment intended to keep trains on the track may have contributed to two recent freight train derailments, including one Wednesday that forced the cancellation of all morning MetroRail trains and blocked Seventh Street traffic for several hours, Capital Metro officials said.
The “point protector,” installed a week ago by a Capital Metro rail contractor on a trouble-prone spot in East Austin called the “wye” where three tracks meet, was removed later Wednesday. The agency and its contractors are continuing to investigate the incident.
“The wye is a challenging piece of track and one we’ve had our eye on already,” said Doug
Allen, Capital Metro’s interim chief executive officer. “That’s why the piece of equipment was there. So we’ll look into it and determine the best course of action.”
That could include straightening the track just north of the wye, Allen said, but the agency is still studying the issue.
Another Capital Metro freight locomotive derailed at the same spot Sunday, officials said. Because there is no service on weekends, MetroRail was unaffected by that incident. There were no injuries in either incident.
The MetroRail trains resumed their regular runs Wednesday afternoon and evening once freight locomotives and rail cars had been cleared from the 32-mile section of track where the passenger service runs. Federal Railroad Administration rules require that the corridor be clear of freight equipment before passenger trains enter that area. MetroRail trains are expected to run on schedule today.
MetroRail, which has 19 runs a day in the corridor between Leander and downtown Austin, had an average of 779 boardings each weekday during May. Assuming that average has continued, about 400 commuters were affected by the cancelled Wednesday morning runs.
Capital Metro, once it learned of the derailment, dispatched buses to several MetroRail stations to give rides to any rail customers who showed up. At the Howard Station a few minutes before the 7:38 a.m. train would have arrived, James Burke, a 22-year-old research assistant at the University of Texas, got back in his car after being told the trains weren’t running.
“It’s a little inconvenient, but it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I will probably be driving in today or head over to the Tech Ridge station to see if there’s a bus.”
There were only a few cars in the station’s parking lot at that point.
Allen said Wednesday afternoon that freight runs will continue to run as needed.
What Capital Metro called a “walkoff” — a minor derailment in which a train wheel leaves the track at slow speed but the train does not overturn — occurred between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. at the wye south of Seventh Street. The loco- motive of the 67-car southbound freight train, operated on Capital Metro-owned track by its contractor Watco Companies Inc., hopped the track at approximately 5 mph. Both freight and passenger trains must move slowly in this triangle of tracks.
The train, carrying crushed limestone, had been intending to make a left turn at the wye and continue east toward Manor. MetroRail trains, which run from about 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from 3:10 to 7:40 p.m. on weekdays, pass through the wye but turn west.
The wye was the scene of a 2007 freight derailment that led to a substantial spill of diesel fuel when a tank ruptured, according to an official with the agency’s former rail contractor. Since then, with restrictions on train speed in place, officials said there had been no other derailments there until the two incidents this week.
Watco, which operates the freight trains, suggested placing the point protector there and Herzog Transit Services, which runs MetroRail and maintains the track, installed the piece of equipment, Allen said.
The ‘wye’ in East Austin, where three rails converge, has seen two derailments recently. Wednesday’s forced the morning cancellation of MetroRail service. Workers clean up and repair the track.
Workers examine the tracks as a freight train slowly rolls by the spot where another train derailed Wednesday morning. MetroRail trains resumed service Wednesday afternoon.