FRA: Broken rail “probable cause” of 2018 derailment

Thursday, January 13, 2022
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4,600 pounds of coal spilled from 39 rail cars on the track on the west side of Columbus in 2018. SCN file photo.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) investigation into the September 2018 derailment of 41 loaded rail cars on the west edge of Columbus determined that the “probable cause” of the incident was a broken rail-detail fracture from the shelling or head check.

That conclusion was reached largely based on the accordian-style derailment which is “indicative of a sudden catastrophic occurrence which often results from a broken rail or broken rail car wheel,” according to an investigation report obtained by the News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The synopsis of the investigative report also states that the “investigation was unable to determine any definitive possible contributing causal factors to this accident/incident.”

The report also stated that Montana Rail Link reported $2.5 million in equipment damages and $275,000 in track, signal, way and structure damage, for a total of $2.755 million.

The train consisted of three leading locomotives, a distributive power locomotive on the rear, weighed a total of 17,539 trailing tons and was 6,824 feet in length, according to the FRA report. The train had originated in Laurel.

The train crew said they felt a bump motion forward followed by a tugging motion backward, “proceeded by a non-engineer induced emergency application of the train’s air brake system,” according to the report.

When the train came to a stop, the assistant engineer walked a short distance and upon coming to the seventh rail car, reported back that the train had “broken in two.”

The assistant engineer continued to walk the train and came upon a local law enforcement officer who explained that multiple cars had derailed, according to the report. The engineer immediately reported it to MRL dispatch. Both engineers were taken for “post-accident toxicological testing,” which came back clear for both.

A 10-day work/rest history was obtained for both engineers as well and it was determined that fatigue was not a factor, according to the report.

Speed was also determined to not be a factor, as the train was traveling 37 mph in a 45 mph zone at the time of the derailment, according to the report.

The derailment occurred on Sept. 25, 2018 at 11:12 p.m. involving a westbound MRL loaded extended haul coal train that derailed at milepost 40.9. Thirty-nine of the cars spilled approximately 4,600 tons of coal. Two cars spilled coal into the Yellowstone River, which was almost immediately remediated with contracted environmental consultants working with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana of Department Environmental Quality, the Stillwater Conservation District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to the report.

Coal is not considered a hazardous material. No injuries or property damage occurred.

At the time of the derailment, it was dark with clear skies and 38 degrees, according to the report.

MRL crews immediately began clean-up work and by 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, 2018, had brought in portable lights and heavy equipment, grabbing and up-righting each car one by one.

By 3:40 a.m. on Sept. 27, the mainline had been cleared and train traffic resumed.