Rough weather puts rails at risk in Northern California

Scene from freight train derailment in Elk Grove that sent cars into river

A freight train derailed from its tracks and sent cars tumbling into the water Friday afternoon. This is video from Robert "Doc" Souza, who was one of the first people on the scene. Cosumnes Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Hubbard said about
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A freight train derailed from its tracks and sent cars tumbling into the water Friday afternoon. This is video from Robert "Doc" Souza, who was one of the first people on the scene. Cosumnes Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris Hubbard said about

The rail line near Elk Grove where a freight train full of canned tomatoes derailed last week is expected to be repaired by Thursday, allowing Amtrak trains to resume running and giving track owner Union Pacific an assist as it struggles to move freight during one of the wettest winters on record.

The derailment and the collapse of tracks elsewhere in Northern California this winter offer a reminder of how extreme weather can disrupt train operations and pose safety risks. The railroads face a federal deadline to install new safety technology that can slow or stop trains when it senses hazards up ahead on the rails.

Elsewhere in the north state, a key UP line in the Feather River Canyon east of Oroville has been out of service for more than a month because of erosion and mudslides, causing delays in freight shipments to and from the Sacramento Valley.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger service also has been suspended between the Bay Area and Salt Lake City until Saturday because of track issues.

Union Pacific officials have not said what caused the derailment of 22 freight cars last Friday near the Cosumnes River at Dillard Road. But company spokesman Justin Jacobs said the track berm was saturated from heavy rains and was surrounded by rising water.

The incident briefly concerned county safety officials and hazardous material responders who at first didn’t know what products the train was carrying.

Amtrak San Joaquin passenger trains traverse the line where the freight train derailed four times a day between Sacramento and the rest of the Central Valley. Passengers are being bused between Sacramento and Stockton until trains can begin using the line again.

Contacted by The Sacramento Bee, Amtrak expressed no safety concerns, saying in an email that it has “the utmost confidence with host railroad’s infrastructure, inspection and maintenance procedures.”

A California Public Utilities Commission spokesman, however, said his agency is investigating the incident. The PUC, which has safety oversight for state rail systems, employs rail inspectors who are mandated to survey every mile of track annually.

UP railroad officials say they have a robust safety inspection program. At the same time, UP and officials with Sacramento’s Capitol Corridor passenger rail system acknowledged that this winter’s heavy rains have hit their system hard, causing track damage, significant rerouting and delays.

The Capitol Corridor, which connects Sacramento to the Bay Area, issued a public apology two weeks ago for an ongoing series of train delays and said it will be working with UP on improving operations and maintenance.

UP officials noted that the heavy winter has led to “washouts, snowslides, rockslides and mudslides” that have closed some lines, notably a busy track through the Feather River Canyon. UP also closed the freight line between Roseville and Oroville for several days this week after Butte County officials ordered evacuations because of concerns that an Oroville Dam spillway might give way, flooding the valley below.

Union Pacific routes

Last week’s derailment temporarily made UP’s track through midtown the only route south from Sacramento.
Map of Sacramento by council district 
The Sacramento Bee

The derailment and other incidents prompted questions this week about whether California’s aging infrastructure is up to the challenge of climate change.

Stuart Cohen, head of TransForm, a statewide transportation and community planning advocacy group, said the UP train derailment issue seems analogous to the questions being raised about the fitness of Oroville Dam.

“We are seeing weather conditions that might mean changes to our infrastructure are needed,” Cohen said. “While the rail tracks are generally well-maintained, we would support additional oversight, especially as we look to a changing climate (and) rail that is exposed to rising seas. This should prompt some reflection – not just more inspectors, but whether we are accounting for a wider range of hazards.”

Other recent track safety incidents, including a Capitol Corridor passenger train that apparently changed tracks at high speed, jolting and slightly injuring some passengers, have prompted some to press for quicker implementation of advanced safety equipment on trains, notably a computerized system called Positive Train Control that can “view” hazards on the line ahead and slow or stop a train.

The Federal Railroad Administration has given rail companies, including UP, BNSF and Amtrak, a December 2018 deadline to have PTC fully installed.

Amtrak head Wick Moorman, speaking on Wednesday to a U.S. Senate subcommittee dealing with surface transportation safety, called for more federal investment “in our aging assets.”

A Union Pacific freight train carrying flour and tomato sauce derailed from its tracks and sent cars tumbling into the water Friday afternoon in south Sacramento County next to the Cosumnes River.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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