(Lytle, Texas – May 3, 2013)
A broken rail connector on a stretch of track scheduled for repair which had not yet been undertaken created a panic situation for the small Texas town of Lytle Monday morning when a northbound Union Pacific freight train consisting of five locomotives and 101 freight cars headed for San Antonio, TX, derailed 26 of them in the middle of town, scaring the daylights out of residents. The derailing cars barely missed a trackside service station, but not a propane business just across Main Street from the UPRR tracks that parallel it, where a number of propane tanks were grazed and one compromised.
“We were very fortunate this morning,” remarked Lytle Chief of Police Richey Priest, who could not believe the report one of his officers made regarding a train derailing downtown. “God was watching over us.”
Lytle PD Lt. Matt Dear said the derailment could have been a catastrophe had the derailing cars struck either the gasoline storage tank at the filling station or tore open one or more of the large number of propane tanks stored at Lytle Propane, or had the train been hauling “hazardous materials or anything on the train.”
Lytle Propane Administrative Assistant Debby Maingot said “It’s one of those things that we all talk about occasionally because we’re this close to the tracks”.
Meanwhile, next door at Lytle Feed and Seed, clerk Joan Collins was among store employees rattled when the derailing train cars shook the walls of the business. She noted that train traffic on the line through town has increased considerably. “Instead of 10 trains a day, it’s up to 23,” calling the continual train intrusion a“24-7” situation.
Rose Lynn, who lives above her antique business, “Rose’s Cottage”, which faces the tracks barely a rail car’s length away, stepped out of her front door only to be greeted by a roar she likened to that of a tornado. Thinking of the abundance of propane tanks just down the street, Lynn panicked. “I need to get the hell out of here is what I thought,” she recalled.
Following the accident, Texas Railroad Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye said that “a small amount of propane vapor was released through a valve” on one of the tanks, as an investigator for the Commission’s Alternative Energy Division responded to the crash because of the threat to the propane.
For Union Pacific, UP Spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza-Williams said the derailment “probably would not have occurred” had UPRR crews performing track repair along the line made it into town before the wreck occurred. She said the railroad has “a good program in place to insure we operate our trains in the safest manner,” pointing out that the train was only going 49 mph in an area where trains can go as fast as 60 mph.
Instead of accepting the UP spokesperson’s “If we say it, it’s so,” San Antonio Express-News writer Vianna Davila decided to check the facts on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website, finding that the FRA says maximum allowable speed on the line through Lytle is 49 mph, not 60.
Saying that the railroad did not know the track was defective before the derailment occurred, Espinoza-Williams said that “unfortunately, the issue was next to impossible to detect visually,” adding that “In this case, we already have crews working in this area, but unfortunately, the crew that would be replacing this section of track was not able to get there before this occurred.”