For the third time

Cleanup crews pick up the pieces of the BNSF train derailment on July 31, close to Hull. It was the third train derailment to happen in N'West Iowa in 13 months. 

REGIONAL—Railroad tracks in N’West Iowa have been in the perfect storm during the last 13 months.

Three major derailments — two involving BNSF and one involving Union Pacific — have taken place since June 22, 2018.

Iowa Department of Transportation Rail Transportation Bureau officials said the rate of incidents is not normal but not unusual and some of the derailments were unavoidable.

“This is an anomaly of numbers just falling into place,” said Phil Meraz, a Rail Transportation Bureau rail regulation and analysis system planning bureau official.

“I suppose if I absolutely had to say there was something we could do to make sure these don’t happen again, we are already doing it. Everyone is working really hard in the state bureau, the Federal Railroad Administration and the railroad companies to make sure things do not happen but they will still happen. The fact that there were three to happen in your area is striking but does not run out of the realm of disbelief. It is definitely a statistical anomaly.”

‘Should be concerned’

Jeffrey Secora, Rail Transportation Bureau track inspector for the northern portion of Iowa, said the extreme moisture in the area has created soft track areas and it is difficult to determine when a derailment is going to happen.

Since N’West Iowa is a rural area, that means the trains will travel at a higher speeds and when derailments happen they will be more high-profile, Secora said.

“People should be concerned,” he said. “You got high-speed tracks, up to 50 miles per hour and the incidents are more high profile. But I will say that the tracks are in about the best shape they have been in since I have been here.”

Secora began working with the bureau in 1974 and is set to retire in September. When he started working in the bureau, he said there were derailments occurring all over the state because the tracks were so bad. The railroad companies were forced by the federal government to fix the tracks, Secora said.

Track inspection is something Secora and the railroad companies do frequently — especially when the outside temperature is hot which can cause railroad tracks to expand, also known as buckling. Secora said ultrasonic rail inspections take place every one to two months.

“We are doing things and everyone is doing their part but sometimes these things happen,” Secora said. “The accidents are unusual but railroad safety is very big. It slowly started turning around in 2000 and there has been a dramatic upturn in safety. Railroad safety has been getting better for a solid 15 years.”

Everything is recorded

Just like the little black boxes in airplanes, trains are equipped with event recorders. The recorders are tamper resistant and monitor speed, time, distance, brake application and signals in a 48-hour loop. Meraz said trains also are fitted with cameras — one pointing to the outside of the locomotive and another pointing inside the locomotive.

“The engineers know everything they do is recorded,” Meraz said. “Working a railroad is very hard, very difficult but it pays well. There are very strict rules.”

Extensive training of accidents is done on a frequent basis and involves all parties. Meraz said tabletop scenarios are constructed at the training sessions and they are not always easy or nice. He said a recent training session involved creating a scenario in Des Moines in which a train hits a truck on Hubbell Avenue, is pushed onto University Avenue and spills anhydrous ammonia on the first day of the Iowa State Fair.

“We want to be prepared for the worst case,” Meraz said.

According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 37 derailments in Iowa between the dates of June 22, 2018 and May 28.

Meraz said a lot of those derailments are small such as a wheel slipping off a track in a switching yard. The larger derailments, such as the three in N’West Iowa, do not happen as frequently.

Many inspections

One thing Meraz said cannot be reiterated enough is how much care and maintenance is put into tracks.

On June 21, 2018 — one day before a BNSF train derailed near Doon and spilled 160,000 gallons of crude oil — Meraz said a railroad vehicle checked the tracks since flooding was a major issue in the area. The check determined the track was fine.

“The railroad companies inspect the railroads,” Meraz said. “I know the Federal Railroad Administration has track inspectors in Kansas City and they do spot inspections around our state. Our office has inspectors who inspect every mile of railroad track every year — some portions are inspected twice a year.”

Meraz said Class 1 railroads are extremely risk-averse and railroad companies such as BNSF and Union Pacific are Class 1. A Class 1 railroad is defined by the Federal Railroad Administration has having an operating revenue of at least $433 million. There are only seven Class 1 railroads left in the country.

“They don’t want things to happen,” Meraz said. “It does no one good. Every moment a train is not running costs them money. They do not want their trains not running so they take good care of their tracks. They do spend a capital output of hundreds of millions of dollars into maintenance of their tracks.”

Track classes

Care also is put into how fast the trains travel and how large of a load they pull.

The size of the load the trains were pulling in N’West Iowa and the speeds at which they were traveling were not factors in the accidents, Meraz said. The speed of the train is determined by the track class, of which there are nine for freight and passenger trains. The maximum speeds for freight trains are:

  • Class 1, 10 mph.
  • Class 2, 25 mph.
  • Class 3, 40 mph.
  • Class 4, 60 mph.
  • Class 5, 80 mph.
  • Class 6, 110 mph.
  • Class 7, 125 mph.
  • Class 8, 160 mph.
  • Class 9, 220 mph.

“The track class looks at how smooth the area around the track is and the foundation underneath the rails — how well it is compacted and built,” Meraz said. “The track classes are very good.”

While the Iowa Rail Transportation Bureau handles many aspects of the railroad industry in the state — managing complaints, inspecting tracks, ensuring federal regulations are followed and more — the office has been without a director for at least a year. The director serves as a liaison between the state and federal agencies in addition to managing office activities.

The DOT Planning, Programming and Modal Division director Stu Anderson said the last director was Tamara Nicholson and the DOT is running an assessment of its offices to determine how to fill vacant positions.