Hell in a very narrow place

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I ran into Paul Kingma by serendipity, at Penny’s Diner in Bill, Wyo. Bill is where Union Pacific recrews its empty coal trains and sends them off to the Orin Subdivision mines to be loaded. Then the loaded trains are recrewed again before heading south to South Morrill, Neb. Paul (that’s him, on the left) said he is a Union Pacific engineer, so we spoke about the big derailment six miles to the south.

A loaded BNSF Railway coal train, CNAMCCM, from North Antelope Mine, had dumped 34 of its 130 cars in a confined cut, fouling all three main tracks. The previous evening, 14 hours after the accident, when I came upon the derailment, an armada of R. J. Corman Derailment Services and Hulcher Services employees had descended upon the site and just succeeded in opening Track 3. Now, the following morning, Track 2 was starting to take trains, too.

CNAMCCM was doing 37 mph, with light dynamic and air brakes applied, when a broken axle on the 37th car sent the train airborne. Kingma, on an empty UP train, was approaching CNANCCM from South Morrill. He felt lucky to be alive. “When we began leaving South Morrill, one of our rear DP [distributed power] units shut down,” he told me. “So I stopped five minutes for a guy from Mechanical to get it going. Had that not happened, I would have been adjacent to that train when it derailed.”

As it was, the derailment turned the green signal facing Kingma’s train to red, and he stopped a mile or so from the mishap and listened in his locomotive as the enormity of the accident revealed itself. “BNSF’s dispatcher was awesome,” Kingma said. “Never lost her composure, asked all the right questions, got help on the way immediately.”

No derailment is pleasant, but this one was a major disaster. Union Pacific’s lost access to all of its Powder River Basin coal mines (they are served by both UP and BNSF) for 24 hours. Dozens of UP trains per day are normally loaded. Even after Track 3 reopened, empty UP trains could only trickle past the wreckage. BNSF was less affected, because it can enter the Orin Subdivision from both the south (via Guernsey, Wyo.) or north (via Donkey Creek, near Gillette, Wyo.).

As I spoke to Kingma, a crowd of Corman employees entered the diner. They had worked in high wind and rain all night long and looked like war refugees. Leaving Bill, I drove south miles and miles beyond the derailment. For as far as I could see, a seemingly endless line of northbound trains, most of them Union Pacific’s, waited to creep forward. Then I turned around and drove north. At the accident site, a fuel truck resupplied all the Hulcher and Corman vehicles. From high on a windy hill, a BNSF foreman kept watch on the wreck crews and directed trains by the wreckage over the radio.

As I continued north, a couple dozen loaded UP and BNSF coal trains jammed every track at a BNSF storage yard (see the photo at left) and UP’s Bill crew-change yard and stretched on the main tracks for another 20 miles. Like their empty counterparts, they waited their turn. But it seemed that the emphasis was on getting empty trains past the derailment and into the mines.

The cost in ruined aluminum coal cars (all that I saw looked beyond repair), in scattered coal, in delayed trains and in cleanup expenses is in the millions. The amazing thing is that you could have a mess like this and not injure a single soul. Paul Kingma, you were one lucky guy. – Fred W. Frailey

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