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Empty tanker cars jump tracks on tideflats

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A stack of 24 tanker cars partially derailed on the Tacoma Tideflats about 9:15 a.m. on April 22. There were no injuries. The tankers were empty so no spill following the incident but the otherwise busy intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Taylor Way was closed for 12 hours to allow crews time to lift the tankers back onto their chassis and for investigators to gather information. The accident happened at a curve in the track and occurred when the weather was slightly rainy, although track conditions apparently didn’t play into the cause of the derailment. Damage estimates to the cars hover around the $250,000 mark.
“That is the ballpark; but it is a pretty big ballpark,” Tacoma Rail Superintendent Dale King said.
The tanker cars were coupled together which meant that the first car to jump the tracks pulled the following car off the tracks, causing a chain reaction that left 15 cars on their sides and three more cars upright but off the tracks.
"Once one car starts leaning, the next one starts leaning," King said. "So it's like dominoes."
The short line had just left Targa Sound Terminal after delivering ethanol that is blended with other fuels at the facility. Ethanol-carrying trains arrive in Tacoma in 96-tanker lines that are then divided into 24-car trains at the Tacoma switching station for the short shuttle to the facility on the Hylebos Waterway.
In this incident, the stack of empty tanker cars was part of a longer 80-car train that included shipments of lumber products and petroleum products that was traveling at about three miles an hour, below the 10 mph limit. The train was on its way to the switching yard and was uncommonly long because cars weren’t ready to be connected to the longer stack earlier that morning. Tacoma Rail usually finishes its morning runs around 6 a.m. to avoid having trains block heavily used truck routes. Rather than keep to that schedule, the train waited and added those cars to run, making the train uncommonly long.
“It’s a move we would normally not make,” King said.
Two empty cars in the uncommonly long train first derailed as the engine pulled forward on the rigidly connected stack of empty tanker cars. Much like a slack string that gets pulled tight, the two derailed cars cause the adjoining car to derail.
“Then gravity took over and pulled the cars over,” King said. “It was a series of unusual circumstances that created another unusual circumstance.”
Uprighting the empty tankers directly outside of the Targa facility was first projected to take a full day of around-the-clock work, but a second crew was called in from Pasco. That allowed the tankers to be placed back onto the tracks and the road opened in half the time.
Tacoma Fire Department's Hazardous Materials response team arrived at the scene within 10 minutes, about the same as Tacoma Rail's responses. Once it was found that the tankers were empty and no one was injured, the fire department's HAZMAT team left the tideflats accident scene to provide support for another crew responding to a call about a gas leak at the Tacoma Mall. An employee at a restaurant had apparently left the gas turned on overnight, causing gas to build up in the location. When they arrived the following morning, workers called firefighters to investigate the source of a strong gas odor. The mall was closed to the public at the time, but arriving workers were evacuated to allow crews to ventilate.
Derailments on the tideflats are increasingly rare, King said, noting that safety features and practices in recent years have largely ended accidents that were once daily occurrences in the 1970s and 1980s. The most recent derailment occurred last fall when seven cars of a 106-car train owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe jumped the tracks along Dock Street. The freight cars were empty. The train was headed to Seattle. No one was injured and nothing hazardous spilled during that incident.
Earlier in the fall, a Tacoma Rail collided with a BNSF train that was stopped on the tracks at Lincoln Avenue and Port of Tacoma Road. In another incident later that same month, two engines collided along Cleveland Way. The accident punched holes in the fuel tanks of both engines, causing some of the diesel to spill onto the tracks.
Tacoma Rail is a municipally owned division Tacoma Public Utilities, alongside Tacoma Power and Tacoma Water. The self-supported rail system operates more than 204 miles of track. It is one of the largest short line railroads in the country.
The fact that the derailment occurred on Earth Day was not lost on the list of groups concerned about oil trains and refineries being located so close to homes and businesses.
“Running oil trains through urban and suburban areas is a bad and dangerous idea, period. The train this morning (April 22) appears not to have caused any injuries or spills, but Tacoma plays host to about eight loaded trains per week on its publicly owned railway, plus an additional 15 northbound loaded trains that can pass through the city each week,” said Serena Larkin, Senior Communications Associate at the environmental watchdog think tank Sightline Institute. “The possibility for that to have been an oil train is not insignificant, and derailments and explosions can happen even at low speeds and with ‘upgraded’ cars.”
Of particular concern for Tacoma when it comes to fuel-filled tanker trains is the fact that Tacoma Rail, which was handling the cars involved in the incident, is part of Tacoma Public Utilities rather than a private venture. That means damage claims of a larger incident would fall on taxpayers.
Tacoma Rail has $100 million in insurance with a $1 million deductible, which means the bill to repair the damages will come from its operational savings account. The division of TPU has about two months’ worth of operational expenses held in reserve that will cover the final tally.