A student engineer reached 25 mph in a 10 mph zone — in reverse — while trying to catch up to a runaway rail car before a derailment in Glenville this past February.
A conductor was fired and the trainee and an engineer were both suspended following the Feb. 7 derailment, according to documents the Federal Railroad Administration provided to The Daily Gazette in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
A total of 32 people were evacuated when 11 cars derailed just a few feet from residences in the nearby mobile home park near the town of Glenville’s drinking water supply wells off Route 5.
Though some punishment was handed out, Glenville town Supervisor Christopher Koetzle this week decried what he perceives as lax attention to the risks irresponsible train operation present to the town.
“This reeks of considerable carelessness, and it could’ve had severe and long-lasting impacts,” Koetzle said.
Pan Am Railways did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
No hazardous materials were spilled and no one was injured, according to the investigation report. It depicts a harrowing situation that unfolded after one of the Pan Am Railways employees hooked up too many cars on a slope without using enough handbrakes to hold them in place.
According to interviews, a student engineer with 11⁄2 years’ experience saw one car with grain overturn before asking the experienced engineer if he wanted to take over. The experienced engineer, after having told the student to speed up because the cars were getting away, replied: “No, you go ahead.”
The incident is being blamed on insufficient use of hand brakes. A conductor was shifting cars to assemble an 80-car train and too many cars were hooked up for three handbrakes to hold, so the train began rolling downhill.
Though the engineers thought they were chasing 71 cars, they were actually chasing only one. The other 70 had already rolled down the tracks.
The one car they were chasing slammed into the other 70, then they slammed their two connected locomotives into the rear-most car.
Documents detail a rebuke to the engineer from a Pan Am Railways official, whose name is redacted, who called the lack of serious injuries miraculous.
“The fact that [the] conductor was able to ride the front platform of your locomotive into a 21 miles-per-hour impact with a standing car, have that car and the three cars immediately west of it capsize and derail and, in the process lift the locomotive he was riding off the rail, and then walk away from the experience is miraculous,” the Pan Am official said in the letter.
“In your testimony, it is apparent that you, the certified locomotive engineer with considerably more experience than [the] student engineer, made no effort to replace him at the controls or to supervise him — directly or otherwise — in his operation of the locomotive under such high-risk conditions,” the official said in the letter.
The engineer was charged by the rail company with 15 operating and safety rules violations.
All three involved — the student, engineer and conductor — were tested for drugs and alcohol, and all were found to be clean.
Further communication between the rail company and the employees indicates the workers suggested to their superiors the company shared some blame for not providing training on how to deal with runaway trains.
The Pan Am official in the report condemns the suggestion they need a “runaway protocol” and instead emphasizes the incident would never happen if the rail workers were following safety and operating rules.
“It is the company’s expectation that its employees — who have been trained, examined, and qualified on the safety and operating rules and the physical characteristics of the territory upon which they are operating — observe, practice, and comply with all applicable rules in the performance of their duties, the need for a ‘runaway protocol’ does not exist,” the official said in the letter detailing violations to the engineer.
The 7:30 p.m. derailment caused $768 worth of damage to the tracks and $334,788 in damage to rail equipment and left a lingering odor in the neighborhood, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC fined Pan Am Railways $5,000 this summer for solid waste and air quality violations after determining garbage from the derailment was left to rot. A slurry of lime and grain that spilled out of one of the derailed cars was left alongside the rail after all the train equipment was cleared, and it started attracting flies and complaints from residents bothered by the foul odor.
Koetzle said Thursday he hasn’t heard anything from the rail company since the derailment, and that is disconcerting.
“I am disappointed with what I perceive to be the light punishment for the accident. Actually, when you consider the potential for catastrophic impact this could’ve had,” he said, noting more than 30 people were routed from their homes in freezing temperatures.
A hazardous materials spill in that area could have contaminated the town’s drinking water, and a different circumstance might have led to death, he said.
“If that train flipped the other way, there could have been fatalities,” he said.