Freight train mishap chokes rails, traf­fic

Derail­ment pre­vents Metro­Rail ser­vice, blocks Sev­enth Street

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Wear

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.

Jay Jan­ner AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

Jay Jan­ner AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

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