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Train Wreck Brings Down MO Bridge

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

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Federal transportation investigators are combing the scene of the nation’s second bridge collapse in less than a week.

Two days after a span of the Interstate 5 bridge fell into the Skagit River in Washington State, a Missouri highway overpass caved in after a freight train collision rammed one of the structure’s supporting columns.

Two cars were on the Highway M Bridge in Chaffee, MO, when it collapsed about 2:30 a.m. Saturday (May 25) and set off a diesel-fueled fire.

Hwy M Collapse - Chaffee, MO
Photos: NTSB

The bridge support that collapsed was hit in January by a railcar in another derailment, but authorities at the time said the column was not damaged. The accident occurred about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

Seven people were reported injured. None of the victims were identified, and the severity of their injuries was not disclosed.

Deja Vu for NTSB

As it had Thursday evening (May 23) after the I-5 collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators to the scene.

The collision involved freight trains from the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railways, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told a news briefing Saturday (May 25).

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt briefs the press Sunday (May 26). Saturday's briefing may be viewed here.

The westbound Union Pacific train, with three locomotives and 75 cars, hit the middle of the southeast-bound BNSF train, which had two locomotives and 60 cars, Sumwalt said. The collision occurred where the railroads’ tracks intersected, authorities said. The BNSF train was carrying scrap metal; the Union Pacific’s load was not disclosed.

Each train was staffed by an engineer and conductor.

The collision derailed two locomotives and 11 cars from the Union Pacific train and 13 cars from the BNSF train, Sumwalt said.

Bridge Hit Before

Spans 2 and 3 of the five-span bridge collapsed after the No. 3 column was struck by one of the railcars, which was “wrapped around” the support, Sumwalt said.

Hwy M Collapse - Chaffee, MO

The collision derailed a total of 24 cars and two locomotives from the two freight trains at an intersection.

Sumwalt said the 367-foot-long bridge, owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, was last inspected Feb. 25 and rated a 7 on a scale of 1 to 9, which classified its condition as “good.”

However, he added, the No. 3 column was also struck by another railcar in a derailment on Jan. 30 of this year. The column was inspected after that accident and found to have no structural damage, Sumwalt said.

This time, Sumwalt said, BNSF personnel did not even realize the train had been in a collision until after the emergency braking system engaged and the conductor got out to walk the track to investigate.

The conductor, who had more than 10 years of experience, discovered the collision about a dozen cars back, Sumwalt said.

Replacing the bridge will cost about $3 million, said Mark Shelton, engineer for MODOT's southeast region.

“The damage is very extensive,” Shelton told “We’re going to end up removing the entire bridge and completely replacing it.”

Investigation Focus

NTSB investigators were expected to remain on the scene for up to a week. The trains’ track image recorders and event data recorders were flown back to NTSB’s lab in Washington on Saturday for examination.

Image recorders were mounted on the front of each train and on at least one rearward-facing locomotive, Sumwalt said.

Hwy M Collapse - Chaffee, MO

The derailment took out two spans of a highway overpass that was being traveled by two cars.  The derailment, bridge collapse and ensuring fire injured seven people. Their conditions were not available.

The investigation will examine:

  • The mechanical condition of both trains;
  • The track condition;
  • Train control signals;
  • Operating procedures of both railroads; and
  • The performance of both train crews.

Data from signal recorders have been downloaded, crews will be interviewed, inspection records analyze, and cell phone records examined during the NTSB's week-long “fact-finding mission,” Sumwalt said.

Other parties to the investigation include both railroads, MODOT, the United Transportation Union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Health and safety; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Rail; Railcars; Roads/Highways

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