Railroad blames former owner for derailments, pledges investment

The president of Puget Sound &Pacific blamed former owner RailAmerica for a spate of recent derailments on the short-line railroad, then committed to “dumping a lot of money” into the track.

In a presentation to the Port of Grays Harbor Tuesday, Joel Haka outlined some of the results of an investigation conducted by the railroad and the Federal Rail Administration after three derailments within about a month in Grays Harbor County.

Genesee &Wyoming bought RailAmerica about 18 months ago for $1.39 billion, making G&W the biggest short-line railroad operator in the U.S. and the new owner of PSAP.

“Quite frankly, we did not realize the state of the railroad, what it was, and now we are fully cognizant of what this entails,” Haka said. “To ensure that we don’t have any further derailments … we are increasing the amount of ties 60 percent. We are strengthening and hardening this railroad, and we have a real comprehensive three-year plan in which we are going to be replacing a lot of rail, we are going to be making a lot of improvements — you’ve seen a lot of improvements since our last May 15 derailment. And you’ll continue to see those improvements throughout the summer.”

In 2014, Haka said G&W expects to spend more than $4.3 million upgrading the PSAP line. In the next 18 months, he said the company will spend at least another $4.5 million on top of that.

“We’re going to spend as much capital in the last 18 months and the future 18 months, three times as much as the former owners — which is RailAmerica — did in 2010 and 2011. We believe in this railroad, we don’t have a lot of history with it,” Haka said.

He blamed that lack of investment in maintenance by RailAmerica for much of what led to the recent derailments.

“We are dumping a lot of money into the physical infrastructure, because quite frankly, we’re embarrassed,” Haka said. “We move freight for a living. We don’t like derailments. In fact, we haven’t had a real derailment here since 2009 from the records that we could find. We had one at the end of last year up in the Shelton (subdivision), but on the Elma (subdivision), which handles the preponderance of freight, nothing had happened here since 2009. So what we believe is it was an issue with not investing the amount of money that’s needed to keep the plant running, so to speak. And now we are very aware of that.”

Haka said the cause of the May 15 derailment outside Montesano was found to be a thermal misalignment, known as a sun kink. It happens when sudden changes in temperature warp the rail.

“What we’ve done is we’ve re-trained our crews and we’ve retrained our maintenance of way people to more easily spot these types of things,” he said.

For the five-car derailment in Aberdeen April 29 and the seven-car derailment outside the Olympic Gateway Mall in Aberdeen May 9, the cause was a failure in the ties because of heavy rains.

“I don’t quite understand how that came about,” Port Commissioner Chuck Caldwell told Haka.

“What happens is the water and the mud pools, and it compromises the integrity of the track,” Haka said. “The physical infrastructure had dropped a bit. It was uneven and it caused a wide gauge, and it caused the derailment.”

He said since then, the whole track had been elevated, with more ties and a newly hardened rail. Haka said a geometry car and a rail defect car had been run down the track in order to verify the track is aligned correctly and no hidden defects lurk inside the rails themselves. “We run them about every year or so,” Haka added. “We’ll run it more frequently, we’re inspecting more often. And quite frankly, we’re making the capital investments, principally ties and rail, to make sure that (another derailment) doesn’t happen.”

The official report from the FRA investigation has not yet been released, but Haka said the agency had found “a number of defects to fix within 30 days,” which he expected to complete by June 26.

Asked about the bridges on the railroad, Haka stood by the existing inspection practices and the structural integrity of local bridges.

“Sometimes you look at these things, and they look old, but structurally they’re OK,” Haka said. “But as in any railroad, you have to replace ties, you have to look at rail as well as the structural integrity of the bridge itself. Those are inspected every year. We’re very picky about bridges. They may not cosmetically look great, but at the end of the day it’s capable of handling the freight that we work with.”

Haka is also senior vice president of the Pacific Region for Genesee &Wyoming. He joined the company in 2013.


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