Broken wheel topples train; leaves cars teetering over freeway

Looking at the wreckage from the NE 102nd Avenue overpass, the railroad cars on the bridge high above the I-84 freeway were definitely tilted – and cars under the bridge were lying on their side. Find out exactly what happened, right there …

The derailment of this train shook up neighbors, and snarled traffic on two freeways – and on NE 102nd Ave. as well.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A little after 7:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 24, Parkrose Heights resident David Green said he had just gotten home after working his graveyard shift when he heard a “troubling” sound coming from the freeway and railroad canyon just to the north of his home.

“It was a loud, screeching, grinding noise,” Green told us. More than just the noise, “You could feel a vibration, then a big thud. It wasn’t like an explosion, just a really big thud.”

Despite the noise, he went to bed. While Green slept, hundreds of motorists found themselves locked into  nightmare of a traffic jam.

Green said he didn’t think much about it until he woke up in midafternoon and walked over the NE 102nd Avenue viaduct – just south of NE Fremont Street – that takes neighborhood traffic above the I-205/I-84 interchange – and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Although no one was injured, the damage to railcars and the rails was extensive.

Cars akimbo
Dozens of spectators were lining the overpass, looking at the derailed train below, when we arrived and met Green. Railroad cars below us, on either side of the bridge, were lying on their sides; other cars were off the tracks and leaning southward.

Directly below us, on the east side of the bridge, the hardened steel rails were sheared in two – as if cut by a giant pair of tin snips.

Of greater concern to Oregon Department of Transportation, though, were the rail cars – teetering sideways by a few degrees, on the fly-over railroad bridge, high above eastbound I-84. Because of the precarious angle of the railcars, ODOT shut down ramps connecting westbound I-84 to I-205 until 11 a.m.

Many bystanders speculated about the cause of the derailment; police and fire officials had no comment, because the incident took place on privately-owned land – that of Union Pacific Railroad.

It looked as if the rails were cut by a giant pair of tin snips.

Broken wheel causes derailment
In the past, we’ve been stonewalled when asking questions regarding railroad-related incidents. In a refreshing turn of events, we were able to speak with a Union Pacific Railroad spokesperson, Zoe Richmond, who proved candid and forthcoming.

“Early on, there was speculation it was a track issue,” reported Richmond. “But preliminary reports indicate the derailment was caused by a broken [railcar] wheel. The train kept going along the track until it reached the curve [under the NE 102 viaduct, heading around the base of Rocky Butte]. It ended up derailing.”

The cars were so heavily loaded – but within safety standards – that the broken wheel sliced the ties, then shredded the track, derailing many of the train’s 36 cars. These fully-loaded lumber cars weigh as much as 140 tons each, Richmond added.

“Indeed, the derailment happened on private [railroad owned] property,” Richmond confirmed. “And, we’ve been working with local and state authorities to make sure there are no safety impacts. We’ve got a big job to do, and we’re working to get it done as quickly and safely as possible.”

Each of these lumber cars weighs in at 140 tons – or more.

On-site injury confirmed
A spectator on-scene told us they saw a railroad worker injured when a chain, being lifted by a portable crane, came loose from a coupler, and knocked him to the ground.

“We had an employee, in the Car Department, involved in an accident, and he received facial lacerations,” Richmond candidly confirmed. “I don’t have all of the details, but a piece of equipment injured him; he is being treated. We are evaluating the situation. Safety is our Number One priority.”

With the railcars stalled on the bridge spanning the Banfield Freeway, ODOT closed the road while workers labored to clear the bridge.

Clean up efforts ongoing
Although they’d hoped to have the rail cars moved from the tracks Thursday night, June 26th, the cleanup and salvage efforts will take longer, Richmond admitted.

“After our work on Thursday night and early Friday morning, we could see this was going to take longer than we’d expected,” said Richmond. “We didn’t want to be a burden to the [Friday] morning commute, so we’ll be working on it again during the evening hours tonight [June 27th].”

ODOT said to be aware that they’ll close down I-84 again on Friday night, while crews remove the remaining railcars; and they may need to shut down the freeway again if necessary during the rest of the weekend.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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