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A Union Pacific Railroad mixed freight train derailed, caught fire, and caused the collapse of the heavy rail bridge over Tempe Town Lake. That bridge reportedly was the site of another derailment in June. The location is a low speed section. with an area light rail bridge next to the heavy rail bridge. Just on the north side of the bridge is a major highway loop, Loop 202, carrying people in and out of Phoenix. The smoke could be rising into one of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport landing flight paths, and they were be keeping an eye on the potential explosion of tanker cars. Reportedly, the FAA redirected flight traffic onto the north runways, to keep further low flying traffic out of the area. Thankfully, no lives have been lost so far in this derailment.
A stretch of Loop 202 was closed for several hours, but ADOT reported Loop 202 reopened in time for afternoon commuter traffic. A traffic camera image from 5 pm showed no sign of smoke left at the west end of the railroad bridge.
On the other hand, Valley Metro light rail service will be cut to either side of the derailment until the derailment is cleared and the light rail bridge inspected. So, the area mass transit has reverted back to busses to connect around the affected area.
Service Alert/Update: Eastbound light rail service is terminating at 38th St/Wash and westbound service ends at Smith-Martin/Apache. Shuttle buses continue to transport passengers between those stations. #vmservice https://t.co/zvTruxeSgZ
— Valley Metro (@valleymetro) July 29, 2020
This local news broadcast video is very solid:
Fox10 carried the best-imbedded video of the afternoon Tempe city conference. There is a slow leak of cyclohexane from a tanker car, a highly flammable industrial feedstock. The Tempe detectives and FBI special agents were both on-site early, as Tempe Police Department called them immediately. It is clear from the conference that the Union Pacific Railroad has the lead on clearing the derailment and returning the bridge to safe operating conditions. Fire fighting is led by Tempe Fire and supported by other cities called upon in mutual aid. Multiple federal agencies are on scene, with more flying or driving in.
Since this same site has had two derailments in a month, it is reasonable to consider both human failure and human malice. Union Pacific has strong incentives to keep its tracks in good working order. They have had the cash reserves over the decades to do major maintenance when the economy dips deep enough to decrease rail traffic demand. State and federal authorities, along with the railroad, will be looking very closely at the physical evidence.
Is derailment too conspiratorial? Consider that Arizona has an unsolved case of rail sabotage from 1995, which resulted in the derailment of an Amtrak passenger train, killing one and injuring 100 people. Amtrak runs on the same rails as freight trains.
As Neal Hallford saw rescue workers approaching, he stepped outside his train car for some fresh air.
Under the light of a full moon, he says, something caught his eye: in the dirt, a piece of paper under a rock by the wreckage.
It was a typewritten, anti-government manifesto. The note, Hallford says, was signed, “Sons of Gestapo.”
[. . .]
Along with the notes, railroad spikes had been removed and left by the track. Whoever did this overrode the railroad’s safety system so the train conductor had no idea what was coming.
“They had tampered with the tracks,” McCormick says. “And it was done in such a way that someone knew how to derail a train.”
Prior to this investigation, no one had ever heard of the Sons of Gestapo. And no one has heard of them since.
The derailment may well turn out to be an accident, as there have been no early claims of responsibility by anyone. The AZCentral story on the current freight train derailment is very good reporting, with lots of visuals.
UPDATE: Two maps of the Union Pacific rail lines give you some more context and help evaluate news stories. Here is a close-up view, showing how the tracks sharply change direction to each side of the bridge, suggesting that the Tempe bridge is an inherently low-speed section. The rail lines are in yellow.
Here is the big picture view, showing that the freight passing through the state moves on a line well to the south. Containers arriving in southern California ports move east on this southern route. So, freight trains passing over the bridge in Tempe are making stops through the Valley of the Sun. That route will be more limited, as trains will have to shuttle back and forth to either side of the fallen bridge, rather than passing through on east-west routes.
The railroad bridge spanned the Salt River, which only flowed seasonally for many years. The water you can see under the bridge is from an artificial lake. Tempe Town Lake was created in a section of the riverbed in 1999.
Tempe Town Lake is Arizona’s second-most visited public attraction. The more than 2-mile long lake was created by damming a portion of the dry Salt River and adding water. Today, the lake continues to act like a river to convey rainwater and snow run-off by lowering the dam when needed and raising it again to maintain the water within the lake.
[. . .]
Since its origin in 1999, the City of Tempe has built several parks and facilities along the lake’s shores, including the Tempe Center for the Arts, Town Lake Marina, a Veterans Memorial, a Public Safety Memorial, volleyball courts, a boat beach and several habitat areas.
The tanker car leak is not entering the water. It is contained in a dry catchment area on the south shore. The public assessment after 24 hours is that there is no evidence of criminal activity so far. However, determining the cause will take some time. The leaking tanker was craned back upright and the leak stopped. The amount leaked is estimated to only be 500 gallons. The goal is to off-load and then remove the tanker cars by Sunday. Valley Metro light rail will continue to shuttle passengers around the parallel light rail bridge.
— Valley Metro (@valleymetro) July 30, 2020
ABC15 streamed the Thursday afternoon update. This briefing included a Union Pacific spokeswoman. She reported that they have suspended recovery operations while investigations are carried out into the cause. This is so that clean up does not destroy evidence that will help solve the puzzle of how the derailment happened. She assured people in the area that they are rerouting trains to still serve customers in the Phoenix area. She also affirmed that the bridge will be rebuilt, as it is important to rail operations in the Phoenix area. She repeatedly declined to answer questions that called for speculation about the incident, saying over and over that the railroad wanted to respect the ongoing investigations.
I am impressed with the professionalism and apparent competence of everyone from the city to the railroad.Published in