A Dec. 17 train wreck sent a locomotive engine into the Mississippi River, left tracks strewn with the wreckage of mangled railroad cars and prompted the evacuation of a nearby veterans home.
Nobody was seriously injured in the crash, which remains under investigation. Officials spent the day assessing the damage caused when two Canadian Pacific freight trains collided at about 5 a.m. near the Interstate 90 exit north of Lock and Dam 7. Other train traffic was rerouted, as cleanup of the wreckage and repairs to the tracks might stretch into the coming weeks, one official estimated.
The two westbound trains collided on a portion of tracks where the main line is flanked by a siding, a stretch of tracks where one train could pass another. The smaller train, 15 cars carrying freight pulled by two locomotive engines, crashed into the larger train, which had three locomotive engines and 100 cars, at the switch, said Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand. The smaller train struck the larger train near its midpoint, heavily damaging portions of both trains, sending the small train’s front locomotive into the river and crumpling its second locomotive.
Brand speculated at the cause of the wreck.
“I believe one train did not yield to the other at the switch,” Brand said. “One had the OK to go straight through.”
The conductor and engineer in the locomotive that plunged into the river had minor injuries and were taken to an area hospital as a precaution, said La Crescent Fire Chief Bernie Buehler. They were released later in the day, Brand said. The conductor and engineer of the other train were not injured. Officials released none of their names.
Twenty three cars derailed in the accident. One punctured car gushed liquid fertilizer on the ground. The railroad dispatched hazardous material professionals to the scene, said Mike LoVecchio, a spokesman for Canadian-Pacific in Calgary, Alberta, but the chemical did not pose a public safety hazard. Workers planned to remove the remaining fertilizer that night, said Vern Graham, vice president of Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, who spoke on behalf of Canadian Pacific.
The collision also ruptured a 1,000 gallon propane tank used to heat the switchbox, Brand said. The tank could be heard hissing that morning from the nearby interstate, and the strong smell of the gas prompted officials to evacuate Mosher Veterans Home just across the interstate. By 1 p.m., the tank had been shut off, and the 24 Mosher residents planned to return to their home that evening.
Canadian Pacific officials launched an investigation into the collision, Graham said. The four railroad employees involved in the crash were tested for drugs and alcohol, in accordance with federal guidelines, he said. Sheriff Brand said he did not believe either substance contributed to the crash.
Three Federal Railroad Administration investigators were on the scene, standard procedure for a crash of this magnitude, said agency spokesman Rob Kulat. The FRA investigates about 100 railroad incidents a year as well as all railroad employee fatalities.
As of Sept. 30, Canadian Pacific was involved in 16 train accidents in 2008, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. Of those, two were collisions. Canadian Pacific’s accident rate per million miles was 1.88, well below the average rate of 3.14 for all railroad companies.
Canadian Pacific would not speculate on how long the tracks, which are also damaged, may be unusable. Cleanup efforts were expected to start that night after the liquid fertilizer had been removed and the locomotive engine in the river was emptied of fuel, Graham said. The cleanup costs and railroad repairs will be paid by the company, he said. He offered no estimates.
The damage affected Amtrak’s service. Amtrak trains were rerouted on Burlington Northern tracks, said Bob Kamrowski, Amtrak agent in La Crosse. Trains didn’t stop in La Crosse and Winona, so passengers were bused instead to either Chicago or the Twin Cities for Amtrak service, said Kamrowski. An Amtrak official said that afternoon that bus service will continue until the tracks are once again operational.
I-90 remained open, but people were asked not to drive near the derailment. The westbound Interstate 90 exit ramp to Dresbach was closed, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported.
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