Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 7; Fires, Floods, and Weather

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Durango_Fire
Firefighters set a back burn along the Durango & Silverton tracks as part of their efforts to contain the 416 Fire in early June.
Wyoming Interagency Hotshots
Railroaders have always had to deal with whatever Mother Nature threw at them, but 2018 was a particularly trying year for railroads dealing with natural disasters, from fires out West to flooding back East and even an earthquake in Alaska.

Perhaps no railroad overcame more than Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which took on a double-whammy of wildfires and mudslides that nearly dealt a knock-out punch to the legendary tourist road. The dueling disasters halted trains along the former Rio Grande branch line for weeks and may have forever altered how the railroad operates during especially dry years.

On June 1, a wildfire started along the tracks near Hermosa, Colo. Although the U.S. Forest Service is continuing to investigate what caused the blaze, nearby residents reported seeing the fire immediately after the morning train to Silverton passed. The 416 Fire torched more than 54,000 acres during the course of two months, forced the evacuation of thousands of people and closed the railroad until July. A few days after the fire started, the railroad was forced to layoff 150 people and the D&SNG’s parent company, American Heritage Railways, shutdown its sister railroad, Washington’s Mount Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum to “optimize” resources.

Significant rainfall in July reduced the fire danger and allowed steam-powered trains to return to Silverton. But that rainfall quickly became too much of a good thing when a series of mudslides impacted the railroad in the recently burned area, again forcing the railroad to significantly alter its operations until fall.

Through August, the railroad bussed passengers from Durango to Rockwood, where they boarded trains for a shortened excursion to Silverton.

In September, a number of local residents and businesses filed a lawsuit against the D&SNG, American Heritage Railways and its owner, Allen Harper, alleging that they did not do enough to prevent the fires. Although the railroad has not taken responsibility for the 416 Fire, it has vowed to do more to prevent locomotive-caused fires in the future. In July, the railroad began work on converting K-37 locomotive No. 493 to burn oil and it announced that it would be purchasing two new diesel locomotives.

The D&SNG was not the only railroad to deal with fires this year. The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad lost a bridge and a concert venue to a wildfire near Forbes Park, Colo., in June.

Further west, Union Pacific dispatched its firefighting train in northern California on a number of occasions to battle fires that threatened its tracks during that state’s prolonged fire season. While California’s fire season traditionally wraps up in the fall, the drought-stricken state was dealing with fires well into November. In San Francisco, the smoke was so bad, that the city stopped running its legendary open-air cable cars so as not to expose employees and passengers to the hazardous conditions.

In September and October, the Southeastern United States was pummeled by back-to-back hurricanes. Hurricanes Florence and Michael drenched the region with water and caused washouts and other problems on numerous CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern routes across the region. Service along most routes was restored within a few weeks.

On Dec. 3, southern Alaska was rocked by a 7.0 earthquake that caused minor damage along the Alaska Railroad. While the right-of-way was repaired within a few days, the railroad’s dispatch center was a different story. The earthquake broke a number of pipes in the facility, causing significant flooding. The railroad moved its dispatching operations to the Anchorage depot until repairs could be made.

Some weather-related railroad stories had a happy ending for railroads in 2018. In January, after a series of mudslides covered U.S. Route 101 near Santa Barbara, Calif., Amtrak increased capacity on the Pacific Surfliner for 11 days. Passenger rail advocates said the incident allowed southern California residents to see the benefits of passenger rail service.

And in October, after more than a year and a half without rail service, trains returned to the remote community of Churchill, Manitoba. The rail line was taken out of service by flooding in May 2017. The then-owner of the railroad, Denver-based OmniTrax, said they were unable to repair the rail line. This summer, OmniTrax sold the railroad to a consortium of four partnerships and companies that quickly began rebuilding the line. The first freight train since 2017 arrived in Churchill on Oct. 31 and the first VIA Rail passenger train arrived in late November.

For the significant damage done to lives and property, dramatic imagery, and heroic efforts to restore rail operations in extreme situations, Trains editors name Fires, Floods, and Weather, the No. 7 story of 2018.

Read editors' other Top 10 stories of 2018 online:
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 10, Giants of RAIL PHOTOGRAPHY pass on
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 9, Station Restorations
Trains Top stories for 2018: No. 8, Indiana Transportation Museum woes

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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