Line reopens after Colfax derailment

Cause is still under investigation
By: Martha Garcia, Editor
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Almost 24 hours after being shut down by a derailment in Colfax, the Union Pacific rail line to the Sierra was reopened Monday morning. According to Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Aaron Hunt, both sides of the tracks were cleared and freight and passenger service resumed at 9 a.m. Jan. 21.

Hunt said that at 11 a.m. Sunday a Union Pacific freight train bound for Oakland, which had originated in Chicago, derailed in Colfax.

“We had five of our well cars – those are types of cars that carry the intermodal containers, double stacked – come off the tracks just down the hill from the main Grass Valley Street railroad crossing,” Hunt said.

Angela Brock, who lives with her family west of the railroad on Schultz Avenue, said the derailment shook her house. “It made a really loud noise,” Brock said. “When I heard the train cars clanking,” she knew there was something wrong.

Hunt said one of the cars that derailed was carrying an intermodal transporting animal skins, preserved in a salt-water solution that was leaking out of the container.

“County officials wanted to take a look at that to confirm that it was not hazardous,” Hunt said.

Approximately 100 people were evacuated from residences and businesses on both sides of the tracks within 500 feet of the wreck, according to Placer County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Carol Walsh.

Once the substance was declared non-hazardous, the evacuation order was lifted. Railroad crews were able to continue the re-rail process at about 2 p.m. and worked though most of the night, Hunt said.

The Grass Valley Street railroad crossing, the main thoroughfare in an out of downtown, remained closed to traffic throughout Monday. Hunt said Union Pacific and the Sheriff’s Office agreed to keep the crossing closed while UP conducted its preliminary investigation. The crossing was expected to re-open Monday.

San Francisco 49ers football fans holding a tailgate party Sunday in downtown Colfax for the NFC championship game witnessed the passing train seemingly hop off the tracks just 50 feet down from their barbecue.

Suddenly “about three cars before the main intersection” a train car crashed into the dirt, “digging a trench in the rocks” said Dakota Sheets, who witnessed the derailment of the train. “I heard a pop and the front wheel of one of the cars broke, at least that’s what it looked like.”

Sheets, along with his and five other families, were standing in the parking lot just across from the US Bank when the derailment happened.

Shiloh Rebozzi explained how chaotic the situation was as it happened less than 100 feet away.

“There was a big bang initially like it bottomed out, and that got everyone’s attention. Then it hit the concrete of the crossing,” Rebozzi said. The scariest part of it all was “to make sure all the children were safe.”

Hunt said a combination of different teams from UP is continuing its investigation into the cause of the derailment.

“Those investigations often take many weeks. We have to look at a number of different data points,” Hunt said. In case a wheel from a rail car is being investigated, for example, it would be sent to be tested in an infrared scanner, which would take a couple of weeks.

The amount of rail traffic moving through Colfax depends on the day, Hunt said, but there can be approximately 20 trains per day.

He said one freight train had been held Sunday night at the Sparks, Nev. yard, and two were held in Roseville. Amtrak passengers would have been transported by bus from Sacramento to Truckee.

Hunt said that last year UP invested $3.6 billion in improving or enhancing its track, system wide. “We’ve seen a reduction in number of derailments. We reduced it by 32 percent since 2001,” he said. “That’s really helping us to operate safely and efficiently.”

The infrastructure work included the recent upgrade of the transcontinental railway between Colfax and Rocklin. In January and March 2012, Union Pacific track crews were in Colfax to replace the old wood ties, metal plates, anchors and spikes with a new base of rock, concrete ties and modern tie binders to support a continuous welded rail roadway.

Gold Country News Service’s Michael Kirby and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.