Jan. 26--Two freight trains ran off the tracks in Wisconsin last week, and in each case, extreme cold was cited as a possible cause -- from a switch malfunction to cracks in the track itself.
With more extreme cold on its way to Wisconsin this week, should Amtrak passengers worry about their trains succumbing to weather-related derailments, too?
Officials say, no.
While there's always some risk of accidents due to extreme weather, Jeff Plale, Wisconsin's rail commissioner, said there's little cause for concern with passenger trains.
He added that there are few freight derailments as well.
"The rail companies are very vigilant about getting out and inspecting tracks," he said in an interview last week. "It's still a very, very safe mode of transportation, and 99.97% of all shipments arrive without incident."
Passenger trains are less risky because they're lighter and shorter than freight trains, and their loads don't shift, he said.
Passenger rail also is operated on a higher track class than slower-moving freight. All U.S. tracks are divided into classes based on speeds and types of operations, with stricter regulations and higher quality rails for higher classes, according to Pasi Lautala, director of Michigan Tech's Rail Transportation Program.
No one was injured in the two derailments last week, but they caused quite a mess in Caledonia and Janesville.
Last Sunday, 19 cars of a coal train ran off tracks owned by Union Pacific in Caledonia.
While the investigation is still ongoing, Plale said the accident may be due to cracks in the track brought on by the extreme cold.
And on Wednesday, a few cars derailed from a grain train, also on Union Pacific tracks, and shut down a Janesville intersection for five hours.
In that case, the cold likely caused a switch to malfunction, according to the Janesville Gazette.
Even the 19-car derailment, though it flung coal around and damaged some of the train's cars, was a relatively minor incident, Plale said.
Canadian Pacific Railway, which owns the tracks on which Amtrak operates, said it is heavily regulated, and its inspection and maintenance program meets or exceeds regulations.
When the weather poses a threat, safety protocols are ramped up.
"At any given time, regularly scheduled visual and computerized track inspections are taking place," spokesman Ed Greenberg said in an email.
"In cases of extreme weather -- such as severe heat, cold or other weather systems -- additional track inspections and patrols are conducted."
Data from the Federal Rail Administration show there has been only one derailment of a passenger train in Wisconsin in the past decade.
It occurred in 2010 and didn't involve a weather problem.
FRA data only include incidents with damage of more than $10,000.
There were only seven derailments last year in the entire state, though the average over a five-year period is much higher, at about 15 a year.
Plale said Wisconsin hasn't had any passenger train incidents so far this winter, though the weather has been harsh.
In Illinois, however, several Amtrak trains recently got stuck in snowdrifts, and Wisconsin sent a few trains down to help move the passengers to Chicago, their destination, Plale said.
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