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Rail Yard Was Only Shot to Stop Runaway Train

Experts say any chance of halting it with a locomotive was lost once the cars gained speed.

June 22, 2003|Seema Mehta, Kurt Streeter and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

When thousands of tons of freight cars rolled free from a Montclair switching station, crew members knew they had just minutes to try to stop them before the runaway cars gained too much speed. Their one shot, experts agreed Saturday, was to catch the cars with a locomotive before they left the yard, a risky maneuver.

Frantic Union Pacific employees tried to get permission from their dispatch operators to give chase. By the time they heard back, it was too late.

The 3,883 tons of rail cars rolled loose after crew members apparently failed to secure the brakes.

More than 20 minutes later, 11 of the 31 freight cars were derailed by railroad officials into a Commerce neighborhood, destroying several homes and displacing 150 residents.

No one was seriously hurt in the accident, which sent freight cars and thousands of pieces of lumber tumbling without warning into the blue-collar neighborhood of single-family homes and apartments.

Rail safety officials, who would not comment about the details of their investigation, said that once the line of freight cars began to pick up speed as it traveled downhill toward Los Angeles, there was little that could be done to stop the cars safely.

"If they'd got it before it left the yard, if they could have hooked up a locomotive, that would have been fine," said Robert Campbell, the lead investigator of the accident for the National Transportation Safety Board. "But once the cars got out of the yard, they had too much speed and weight. It would have been a death wish."

Experts said using a locomotive to chase, attach and control a runaway group of 30 speeding rail cars would be virtually impossible. "One thousand bad things can happen," said NTSB investigator Dave Watson.

The locomotive and rail cars would probably collide in the attempt, Watson said, causing a massive accident and potentially killing the locomotive crew. Even if the coupling was successful, Watson said, there would be little chance of connecting the air braking system and the locomotive would be powerless to stop a string of cars that reached speeds of 70 mph.

"I guess it's theoretically possible, if you've got Steven Seagal" to dangle between speeding trains and connect the air brakes, said Watson.

Ernie Flament, a retired Union Pacific engineer and the president of the Los Angeles-area Union Pacific Employee Club, said that during his long career with the railroad he had seen an engine catch runaway cars.

"It happened in Montclair over 30 years ago," he said. "We caught it before it was going too fast. If it doesn't couple, you give it a little boost, and then it's going faster. It can be done, but very carefully."

In 1990, in an episode with similarities to Friday's accident, 14 runaway freight cars rolled loose from a city of Industry switching yard and careened eight miles along the track before slamming into three locomotives deliberately placed in their path in Pico Rivera. No one was hurt, although seven homes were damaged when nine cars flipped off the tracks and into the adjacent neighborhood.

The Montclair switching station yard, where train decouplings take place, is about two miles in length. The 2,281 feet of cars got loose about a mile from the yard's edge. The freight cars were spotted about four miles down the tracks at 11:41 a.m. by Pomona police officers, who estimated their speed at more than 60 mph.

Roland Kleinsorge, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union representative who sat with crew members during their interview Friday with the NTSB, said that although crew members quickly reached dispatch operators after the cars began rolling, the dispatcher was busy with another train and said she would call back. After the call was not immediately returned, the crew pushed an emergency button on a locomotive, hoping to get permission to chase the freight cars.

D.W. Hannah, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Redlands, said the NTSB interviewed the five crew members for hours Friday night. He said they were shaken, both about what had happened and about the prospect of losing their jobs.

The five crewmen have all been removed from service, Hannah said, and he expects Union Pacific to hold a hearing next week concerning their jobs. He also said that counselors were brought in for the crew. "They're upset for a lot of reasons," he said. "They're upset it happened."

As investigators and railroad officials looked into the cause of Friday's accident, Commerce city officials and residents continued to criticize Union Pacific for not warning local emergency personnel of the impending disaster and failing to help displaced residents.

Railroad officials said Saturday that their priority during the minutes after learning of the runaway cars was how to stop them before they reached downtown Los Angeles.

"What we did not want to happen was for these cars to get into the downtown rail complex," railroad spokesman Mark Davis said at a news conference Saturday.

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