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NS train derails in Va.

(The following article by Lindsey Nair and Lois Caliri was posted on the Roanoke Times website on February 4.)

ROANOKE, Va. -- Twenty-seven coal-laden Norfolk Southern train cars derailed in Roanoke County on Thursday afternoon with a loud screech and a crash "like thunder," witnesses said.

Neither of the two men aboard the 147-car train was injured, no damage occurred except to Norfolk Southern property and NS officials said there was no indication of foul play.

"We're very fortunate it was only coal cars," said Roanoke County Battalion Chief Daryell Sexton.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said by telephone Thursday that it was too early to speculate about a cause of the crash.

The derailment happened about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, scattering cars along at least a 400-yard stretch of railroad track west of Salem near Barley Drive, on the other side of the Roanoke River from U.S. 460. The 19,692-ton train was headed from Bluefield, W.Va., to Roanoke, Chapman said.

Eleanor Buford, a clerk at Blue Ridge Beverage, whose building adjoins the tracks, said the derailment sounded "like cars hitting each other."

Roanoke County firefighters arrived on the scene with a first priority of determining whether the train was hauling any hazardous materials, Sexton said, but they could tell upon arrival that the train was hauling only coal.

Just to be sure, firefighters were sent to the lead locomotive to obtain a manifest, which provides vital information about the train, from the engineer, Sexton said. The firefighters also checked on the engineer and conductor at that time to see if they were hurt.

"He was pretty relaxed," Capt. Scott Donoho said of the engineer. "He wasn't rattled or nothing."

Donoho, of the Fort Lewis Volunteer Fire Department, said the engineer told him he didn't even feel the cars jump the track but he knew there'd been a derailment because the train stopped itself.

Chapman said a series of hoses, called the "train l
ine," runs the entire length of the train, and if two cars separate, the hose separates and the train line loses air pressure. That loss causes the brakes on all the cars to automatically apply, which brings the train to a stop.

The derailed cars were located in the middle of the train. The cars in front of them and behind them stayed on the tracks. The cars behind the derailment detached from the train and stopped a ways behind the rest.

From a distance, the track looked twisted and damaged. Chapman could not confirm whether the track was damaged but said he would be surprised if it was not.

Roanoke County police officers checked all roads that cross the tracks in the area to make sure none was blocked, in case ambulances needed to access residents for unrelated medical reasons.

Norfolk Southern investigators walked around the crashed cars, surveying the damage, for about two and a half hours before NS trucks began to fill the field beside the tracks. The trucks brought generator-powered floodlights and tractors.

Workers first removed brush alongside the tracks with a front-end loader. Later, backhoes were brought in to scoop out the coal that remained in cars. Chapman said the coal would likely be off-loaded onto empty rail cars brought in for removal.

Two of the wrecked cars would be re-railed and towed away, he said, but the rest would be scrapped. Chapman expected that crews would work throughout the night.

"They'll have the line cleared and trains running by noon" today, he said.

Chapman said the affected rail line is used to haul only freight. Multiple trains roll over that section of track each day, but he did not know when the last train passed by before the derailment.

The last NS coal car derailment in Southwest Virginia occurred in April 2002 in Montgomery County, when 12 of 174 cars left the track.

Friday, February 4, 2005

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