Knowles orders independent probe of railroad safety

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles on Thursday ordered a safety investigation of the Alaska Railroad following this week's derailment and fuel spill, the third such incident in seven months.

The governor, traveling in western Alaska, said four members of his cabinet would conduct the probe of operational safety of the state-owned rail line.

''The Alaska Railroad is a vital part of our state's economy and I want to ensure the public has the full trust in the railroad's handling of fuel-freight and passengers,'' Knowles said.

On Wednesday nine cars in a freight train jumped the track near Wasilla. Four 20,000-gallon tanker cars filled with gasoline tumbled down a steep 25-foot embankment. One of them leaked as much as 300 gallons of fuel, according to the railroad.

Wendy Lindskoog, a railroad spokeswoman, said Thursday that fuel in the derailed cars was being transfered to tanker trucks. That process was expected to be finished by early Friday.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said the transfered fuel would be measured to determine how much gasoline spilled into the boggy area near the intersection of the Parks and Glenn highways, about 35 miles north of Anchorage.

After the fuel is removed from the derailed tankers, those cars will be lifted with a crane and placed on flatbed trucks and hauled to Anchorage, Lindskoog said.

The rail corridor was reopened to freight traffic Thursday after 1,500 feet of track was repaired, she said. Passenger trains were scheduled to start running again on Friday.

A Lower 48 railroad safety consulting firm was expected to arrive in Alaska on Thursday to look into the cause of the accident.

Scott Banks, a railroad spokesman, said Rail Sciences Inc. will look at a variety of factors, including the damaged track and the derailed cars.

The consultant will also examine a tape from the locomotive that recorded the train's speed at the time of the derailment, whether brakes were applied and other information, he said.

The Knowles administration's probe will be led by Maj. Gen. Phil Oates, who oversees the state Division of Emergency Services. The other three members are departmental commissioners: environmental conservation's Michele Brown, transportation's Joe Perkins and public safety's Ron Otte.

Knowles said the review team would be able to hire experts to help them prepare their report, due to the governor by mid-October.

Johne Binkley of Fairbanks, who chairs the railroad's board of directors, said he welcomed the independent review.

''The railroad will cooperate with the cabinet team in their work,'' Binkley said. ''We share their goal of making safety the highest priority of the Alaska Railroad's operations.''

Wednesday's derailment and fuel spill was the railroad's third since November.

That month 10 cars left the track about 40 miles north Talkeetna. About 12,500 gallons of jet fuel spilling from two overturned tanker cars involved in that accident.

And a few days before Christmas, more than 120,000 gallons of jet fuel was spilled in another derailment north of Talkeetna. Cleanup of that spill continues.

Reporter T.A. Badger can be reached at

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