Repairs, cleanup begin after 20 freight train cars derail near Williams

Amtrak confirmed they had to cancel passenger routes for their trains that go through Flagstaff.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 8:21 AM MST|Updated: Jun. 8, 2023 at 5:48 PM MST
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WILLIAMS, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — An investigation is underway after nearly two dozen train cars derailed late Wednesday night in Coconino County.

According to Coconino County Emergency Management, a BNSF train derailed just east of Williams around 11:20 p.m. Officials with BNSF say 20 cars derailed and were heavily damaged. The train was carrying new cars, trucks, and vans. No one was hurt.

Coconino County Emergency Management arrived at the scene early Thursday morning, confirming no hazardous materials were involved. Luckily, there was also no impact on area homes or county infrastructure. The derailment happened near a home south of the tracks and a sawmill on the north side. Damage was limited to the BNSF cars, rail lines, and right of way. “It was a pretty major derailment,” said Tim Carter with Coconino Emergency Management. “And to have no injury, no loss of life is pretty impressive.”

BNSF is working to clear the track and begin its investigation into what caused the derailment. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has also sent an inspector to the scene to conduct an investigation.

“I heard this really loud crash. Just bang bang bang. Three bangs--bang bang bang, like that,” said Jim Rusk, who heard the crash. “It didn’t worry me. Even when they showed me the pictures, I saw it was train transport railcars, and I thought, you know, that’s not a big deal.” He also mentioned he feels lucky there were no injuries or chemical spills, saying this was the best-case scenario and things could have been a lot worse.

Investigators work to determine what caused the derailment

Robert Halstead, a rail expert who’s worked with the NSTB to reconstruct accidents like Thursday’s accident near Williams, offered insight into the investigative process. “You’re going to have a track-related team that’s going to look at any possible track defects. That may have contributed or caused the derailment,” Halstead said.

Halstead says investigators will be put into several working groups. In addition to the tracks, investigators will also consider the condition of the freight cars, the train’s handling, the crew, and the signals. “Then you’re going to have a locomotive group which will download the event recorders that are on each locomotive,” Halstead explained.

Arizona’s Family Investigates looked into BNSF and the derailment. BNSF runs in Central and Northern Arizona for 659 miles of rail. It’s the second largest in the state, behind Union Pacific. Since 2018, there have been more than 80 reported derailments in the state. Nearly 50% of those were on Union Pacific, 40% were from BNSF.

While the number of these derailments has been pretty consistent over the last five years, the costs associated with them have spiked. According to the Federal Railroad Administration data, in the past four years, costs associated with them in Arizona have topped $2 million. That does not include today’s derailment or the two derailments BNSF reported in 2023 that has cost nearly $1.5 million in damages to tracks and equipment.

“I can tell you certainly within the last decade perhaps within the last five years or so, I’m seeing significantly increased train length… The longer they get the more difficult they are to control on the part of the engineer,” Halstead said.

Amtrak trains in both directions had to be sent back to their original destinations Wednesday night. Amtrak sent this statement regarding the Williams train derailment:

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