By Ben Olson
A train derailed Monday morning south of Cocolalla Lake, directly in front of Valley Vista ranch adjacent to Highway 95. The crash was reported around 6 a.m. and no injuries were reported.
The derailed train was carrying 110 car loads of corn, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. Twenty-five of the cars went off the tracks parallel to a straightaway section of Highway 95. The train originated in St. Cloud, Minn. and was destined for Kalama, Wash.
“The derailment happened roughly mid-way through the train,” said Melonas. “We’re assessing damage now, but the affected cars will most likely be scrapped on site.”
One main train line was cleared at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Vacuums were able to begin gathering the spilled corn and the damaged cars were shoved to the side while track crews replaced the damaged track with a new one. The second line was opened around midnight Wednesday morning, but clean up for the area should take anywhere from three to four weeks.
Over 60 trains per day use the tracks, including two Amtrak passenger trains. One southbound lane of Highway 95 was closed briefly to allow emergency personnel access, but traffic has otherwise returned to normal.
According to Melonas, officials are still investigating the cause of the crash: “There are no public or environmental threats at this time. It’s a routine clean up now.”
The derailment brought out several different agencies to respond, including the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office. Undersheriff Ror Lakewold said, “We are happy with everyone’s response, and we think it was a great response by all agencies working together.”
Melonas said, “We appreciate the support of all the local agencies that pitched in and helped out.”
The crash comes at an inopportune time for BNSF, which recently announced plans to build a second rail bridge over Lake Pend Oreille. The second rail bridge would allow for two-way train traffic across Lake Pend Oreille, reducing the need for engineers to slow down or stop while waiting for trains to pass.
Supporters of the plan claim less stop time for engineers will translate into less waiting time for drivers at train crossings, as well as an increase in efficiency. Opponents say the second bridge will introduce more trains per day, increasing the chance of a dangerous accident in the lake, as well as wait times.
“My feeling is that we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with building more tracks when we can’t ensure the safety on the tracks today,” said Sandpoint mayor Shelby Rognstad, a vocal opponent to the second rail bridge. “This is the third derailment we’ve had in this area in a year. Obviously we have unsafe rain lines on the ground today.”
Melonas said the crash has no effect on the second rail bridge plans for BNSF.
Rognstad acknowledged that the city of Sandpoint has little to no say in BNSF’s plans: “It’s their right of way. They own the property, they own the right of way. Cities have virtually no control over how railroads use their properties.
“Thankfully BNSF has been good to work with and notifying us and keeping us in the loop about their maintenance programs, but I think
it’s necessary for the rail lines to invest in rail safety,” said Rognstad. “We narrowly averted disaster every time an incident like this happens. It would obviously be a disaster if the cargo was oil or toxic chemicals.”