(Sunol, California – March 7, 2016)
Nine passengers among 214 aboard a San Jose-to-Stockton, CA commuter passenger train operated by California’s Altamont Commuter Express over a Union Pacific rail were left injured after the five-car train with a locomotive mounted on the train’s rear in “push-pull” mode had its lead two cars derail after striking a mudslide and slide into the adjacent Alameda Creek in Niles Canyon near Sunol, CA last Monday evening at about 7:30 P.M., PST.
The train, one of a dozen daily ACE passenger trains and UPRR freight trains that operate through the rail corridor was operating in an area where unstable earth movements are frequent occurrences according to both experts and past history. The train was traveling at 35 mph on a route where train speed is limited to 40 mph. Experts were also quick to point out that available technology could have, if in place, detected the danger before the train struck the muddy mess that may have contained the trunk of a large tree.
The wreck was the worst in the 18-year history of the renowned and expanding passenger operation that currently accommodates between 5,000 and 6,000 commuter passengers daily on an 86-mile-long line whose operation began in October, 1998. Its operation is taxpayer-supported through the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, a joint-powers group which includes seven cities and one county, even though its operation crosses three.
Nine victims, suffering body trauma, fractures and back pain, and four were transported to one of two area hospitals after the harrowing experience which left many trapped in a rail car partially submerged in 55 degree water.
The most seriously injured were taken either to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, CA, which reportedly had admitted a 52-yearold female with body trauma in “good” condition. Washington Hospital in Fremont, CA, also treated and subsequently discharged a 55-year-old man, while a 24-year-old male remained hospitalized in “good” condition. The location and condition of the fourth victim who was sent to a hospital was unreported.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. J.D. Nelson said “it’s a minor miracle no one died. It (the scene) looks horrendous, like a scene from the movie ‘The Fugitive’. That’s the best way I know how to describe it.”
“It was kind of nerve-racking,” said uninjured passenger and Tracy, CA resident Werner Seele, who was among the dozen passengers in the first passenger coach, which overturned and slid on its side into the frigid creek waters. “You’re on the side of the train and you don’t want to step on the widows because you think you’re going to go through the windows,” he told Sacramento KTXL Fox 40 TV News Reporter Kay Recede. “You’re disoriented, and you don’t know which way is up!”
Seele credited his fellow passengers for aiding one another through their mutual plights, saying “Everyone just stepped up and really did their part”, and described several of the injuries to the TV reporter. “One lady had dislocated her knee. One of the injured gentlemen, he actually had cracked his ribs. He was laying there, but once we realized there was water (flooding into the partially-submerged rail car), I told him he’s gotta get out there.”
Even though suffering with the excruciating pain of broken ribs, the stricken passenger got up and managed to escape as emergency rescuers broke car windows to extricate the trapped and injured passengers.
According to Niles Canyon Railway (an operating vintage rail operation and museum which sits adjacent to the site of Monday’s accident) President Henry Baum, “I ride this (ACE) train every day. I’m very familiar with this canyon and mudslides. It happens every time it rains.” Baum added in an interview by a trio of SFGATE reporters that “You can literally see the earth move, and when it comes down, everything comes down at once.”
United States Geological Service Geologist Jonathan Stock, who told reporters from The San Jose Mercury-News he had studied the area extensively, said “If there’s any place in the Bay Area to have a landslide, Niles Canyon is it. It has a long history of things going bump in the night!”
In reviewing photos of the hillside above the crash site, the USGS official blamed previous railroad construction for creating “an unnatural steep slope” which, aided by heavy rain, caused the flow of a field of debris onto the tracks, triggering Monday’s derailment. “That’s an old cut from when it was blasted for the railroad to go through, Stock continued. “It appears to be a small, thin failure off of a modified piece of landscape,” his analysis concluded.
The common railroad construction practice of utilizing the flattest ground, often near rivers in valleys and canyons alongside steep hills, encouraged “washouts”, Ohio-based railroad engineering specialist Gus Ubaldi told the Mercury-News.
Altamont Commuter Express officials, who had to wait until Wednesday to resume service on the ill-fated line, were planning to approach track-owner Union Pacific on the possibility of the carrier’s installing warning fencing equipped with electronic sensors already in use on other rail lines, including UP’s Feather River Canyon route in California, in the area of Monday’s near-tragedy. The censors, which are not widely used, but highly successful in preventing landslide-induced accidents on railroads elsewhere, among them, western, mountainous Colorado, are designed to set off alerts when hit my trees, landslides or falling rock. But unless there is receptivity by UP, the rail line that supports the ACE operation remains highly vulnerable to recurrence.