Trains come through Truckee every day
Trains have historically been very safe on a per-pound-moved basis but recent events have raised concerns on the issue of trains and their safety. Truckee alone has 15 to 25 Union Pacific freight trains and two Amtrak trains coming through town every day.
Train derailments and the leaking of toxic materials is not new but what Union Pacific is doing, and the now protective measures in place for the trains coming in and out of the mountains, helps ensure the safety of our community.
Trains in Our Area
It is fair to say that Truckee exists because of the path of the Transcontinental Railroad. We were a major stop for the steam engines to get water and to address the challenges of the mountains.
These trains are critical to the U.S. economy. They are used to haul produce, automobiles, containers, truck trailers and much more. They also bring fuel and needed chemicals for production.
Ever since the railroad opened, train wrecks and derailments were not uncommon. The earliest reported accident was in 1869 when the steam train’s boiler blew inside a tunnel killing several people. Train accidents were common as brakemen had to work on the top of the cars, knock icicles off the roofs of the snowsheds and deal with the smoke and fires within the tunnels which led to asphyxiation.
In July 1980, a Southern Pacific railroad car leaking phosphoric acid (used in making fertilizers) arrived in Truckee forcing the evacuation of about 1,500 Truckee residents. The leakage was caused by an improperly sealed lid on the train car. A mother and two children, four train crew members, an ambulance driver, and 10 others were sent to Truckee Forest Hospital complaining of headaches, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath. The question was how long had the train been leaking before it arrived in Truckee and why wasn’t it stopped in Norden on the Sierra Summit when one crew member got sick.
More recently, in 1981 four engines and 11 box cars ran off the tracks in downtown Truckee from a broken axle on a locomotive. The derailment was at the Highway 267 crossing. Luckily the train only contained fruits and vegetables so no evacuations were needed.
Liability of the Trains
Today’s trains have changed. The heavy steam trains have been replaced with diesel electric trains which are much quieter … and snow makes the trains even more quiet which requires even more vigilance.
Trains have also gotten longer with up to 10 engines and 110 empty grain cars going over Donner Pass. These trains can be approximately 10,000 feet long. Train traffic has increased and has put more wear and tear on the tracks and infrastructure.
Hazardous materials and toxic chemicals have to be transported all around the state. Transporting them via a train is considered the safest mode of transportation but is not a perfect solution. Since 2021, 334 trains have derailed in California with four that had a hazardous materials spill (according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services). Note that industry officials say trains are the safest way to transport many dangerous but critical substances since they have a much lower accident rate than trucks.
Improvements to Train Safety
Only the two Amtrak trains stop in Truckee. All other trains slow down but generally continue up to a maximum speed of 30 MPH through town. Even at this slow speed it will take a train up to one mile to stop.
Each freight train has one engineer and a conductor who are supported remotely by a team that communicates with the train through a dispatcher. Most everything else is automated.
Over Donner Pass there are approximately 50 sensors on the Sierra which measure the temperature of the wheels and bearings on the trains to make sure they are at an acceptable heat level. These thermal detectors, which run along the track in both directions, will let the train dispatcher know if there are any hot spots. An overheated bearing is what caused the recent Ohio toxic derailment.
Floriston has a different sensor that looks for railroad cars that may be too tall or are leaning. This is important here since the trains need to go through an enclosed trestle bridge that crosses the Truckee River and passes through the tunnels and snowsheds over Donner Pass.
As a supplement to the automation, Truckee is the base for the track maintenance crews of the Sierra. They can be seen in white pick-up trucks which run on the rails. Every time a train comes by the crews stop their work and do a visual inspection of the train. They look for smoke, which could be a locked brake, or any other abnormalities. This extra step is a huge added benefit to the community.
Union Pacific also has a rail detection car which looks for damage, or if the rail is bad, along the tracks. According to Union Pacific, they spend up to $1.9 Billion annually maintaining their infrastructure.
Snow in the Sierra brings out the flanger, to remove snow between the rails; the spreader, to push snow to the side; and the rotary snow plow, when there is no place to put the snow. The rotary snow plow is awesome in action as it shoots the snow approximately 100 feet from the rails. The goal of each of these specialty trains is to make sure that the train does not derail due to too much snow and the ‘too much snow’ is what we have seen lately.
Truckee is Still a Railroad Town
Union Pacific has its issues and accidents have happened but Truckee is prepared. The town has well-trained fire, police, disaster recovery teams and an educational program of train safety (Operational Lifesaver) in place. But we don’t want an accident so everything Union Pacific can do to make Truckee an even more safe railroad town is well appreciated.
Judy DePuy is a volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, Donner Summit Historical Society and a Board member for the Museum of Truckee History and the Truckee Donner Railroad Society. She resides in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, with their black Belgian sheepdog, Morticia.
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