'This could have been a catastrophe': Passenger train just missed freight derailment
Pittsburgh avoided disaster by a scant two minutes Sunday afternoon when a freight train derailed and sent cars tumbling over a hillside and onto light rail passenger train tracks in the South Side near Station Square, city officials said Monday.
About two minutes earlier, a train carrying passengers left a Port Authority of Allegheny County “T” station at Station Square heading toward Downtown. The train would have been crushed by the falling freight.
City officials called it a miracle.
“This could have been a catastrophe,” Mayor Bill Peduto said. “Instead we don’t even have an injury. Right now, we were blessed.”
East Carson Street and the Smithfield Street Bridge will remain closed for at least the next 48 hours as workers from Norfolk Southern Corp. clean up debris, Peduto said. Rail cars and storage containers filled with household products such as Listerine mouthwash and home appliances were piled up like matchsticks on a hillside and Port Authority tracks leading from Station Square to Downtown.
Norfolk Southern personnel and contractors specializing in derailment recovery had cleared all but two rail cars and about a dozen containers from the mainline track on the South Side, Jonathan Glass, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said Tuesday morning. Norfolk Southern hopes to clear the remaining cars and containers and resume train operations on the line over the next 24 to 36 hours, Glass said.
Three more sets of double-stack containers — six in total — and the rail cars hauling them remain to be cleared from the mainline track as of Tuesday morning, Glass said. Railroad crews and Norfolk Southern contractors overnight removed three sets of double-stack containers - six containers total - and the rail cars that carried them.
Norfolk Southern has been coordinating efforts closely with the Port Authority. The steep slope and tight operating space where the derailment occurred continue to present challenges to the recovery effort. The safety of the work crews is top priority, and work has progressed slowly and deliberately.
The railroad will be assisting the Port Authority in getting its light rail tracks cleared.
PAT reopened passenger service from Downtown to the South Hills in time for Monday’s afternoon rush hour. Only the Station Square stop is closed. The Monongahela Incline is also closed because work crews and equipment are blocking access, according to spokesman Adam Brandolph.
Peduto said the thought of a railway accident has weighed heavily on him since he was a member of Pittsburgh City Council. He said cars carrying highly flammable material pass through the city each day.
The 57-car train destined for Chicago was not carrying hazardous materials, Glass said.
“Of course there are going to be accidents that will occur whether it’s by car, or rail or airplane,” he said. “What we want to do is minimize those and make sure that our tracks are as safe as possible and allow commerce to happen, but at the same time being able to recognize the dangers. Had that been a different container other than Listerine, we would be dealing with a different situation.”
Peduto said the dangers raise questions about the railroad’s quest to have North Side bridges raised to accommodate trains like the one that derailed carrying storage containers that are stacked two high.
He emphasized that only the state and federal government have legal jurisdiction over railroad routing, but officials plan to talk with Norfolk Southern about whether it needs to have double-stacked trains running along two city routes. The routes include one the derailed freight was on, paralleling the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, and the second running from the North Side through Downtown and the East End.
Removing the wreckage has proved tricky and dangerous because cars and containers are perched precariously on the hillside and stacked on top of each other. Norfolk Southern was using four large cranes, including a 450-ton construction crane, four specialty side-boom cranes designed to operate in tight spaces, and excavators and bulldozers to lift and move the cars and containers to staging areas for removal.
It took contractors about seven hours Monday morning to remove the first container. It took about 45 minutes to remove a second.
Workers used chains and straps to attach the containers to a crane capable of lifting 450 tons and slowly lifted and lowered them to be trucked away.
“This is going to be a slow and meticulous operation here to make sure that there’s less risk of anyone getting injured,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said. “You have people up there being hoisted down on a crane in a basket. You’re always afraid a load may shift one way or the other unexpectedly.
Norfolk Southern has been assisted in the cleanup by Pittsburgh public works crews, police, firefighters, paramedics and other offices.
Debris is piled up on the Port Authority tracks known as the Panhandle Flyover leading to the former Panhandle Railroad bridge crossing the Monongahela River into Downtown. Each “car unit” consisting of three segments was carrying six containers.
Port Authority CEO Katherine Kellerman said fare collector Princess Ferguson ran out of her booth and ushered riders on both sides of the platform to safety after the train derailed shortly after 1 p.m.
“We owe her a debt,” Kellerman said. “She kept everyone calm and directed them to a better place to wait.”
Claudette Andrini, a supervisor at a nearby American Natural gas station and convenience store on East Carson, said she thought a large truck was passing on the street Sunday when the train derailed.
“It sounded like thunder at first, but the sky was clear like this,” she said. “Then my coworker was like, ‘Why is the place shaking? What’s going on?’ I honestly thought it was like a big truck going by. Then I looked out the other door. There was just like a big dust cloud everywhere, and then everybody was just rushing around and taking videos and stuff.”