A top Jefferson Parish official questioned Tuesday whether a Union Pacific train should have been crossing the Huey P. Long Bridge during the worst of Monday’s severe weather, even as crews arrived to clean up the wreckage of four train cars that tumbled 40 feet to the ground after a strong gust of wind.
Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts said he wants authorities to consider steps that would keep trains off the bridge during thunderstorms.
While the council does not have the power to pass such a rule, Roberts told reporters he hopes the council will have “some very educated dialogue” on the issue with officials of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which owns the tracks.
Union Pacific officials, meanwhile, said they expected to have the rail cars cleaned up by Wednesday.
Company spokesman Jeff DeGraff said he understood Roberts’ concern. He insisted the two-person crew that was operating the train that derailed Monday in Elmwood followed existing protocol, but he said Union Pacific would review the incident to see if the company’s policies might need to change.
The Union Pacific train was headed from Los Angeles to the CSX Gentilly Yard in New Orleans. About 11:15 a.m. Monday, as intense winds pummeled the area, the crew was about to pull the front of the train onto a siding to let the weather subside, DeGraff said.
But just before the train could get on safer ground, cars and containers toward the rear of the train were blown off the tracks by a strong gust of wind.
There were no injuries, and officials said none of the fallen rail cars contained hazardous materials.
Given those facts, the Federal Railroad Administration stopped short of launching a full-scale investigation, though the agency did send an inspector to examine the scene, agency spokesman Michael Cole said. He said a preliminary report might be available Wednesday or Thursday.
DeGraff said Union Pacific’s dispatch center monitored the weather throughout Monday morning but hadn’t issued an advisory as the cargo train approached the trestle connected to the Huey P. Long Bridge. The crew checked in with the dispatch center and received clearance to continue over the trestle, but conditions ultimately proved to be too extreme.
As the train was crossing the river, the winds picked up — enough at that point to justify an advisory, DeGraff said. Asked how strong the wind needs to be for dispatchers to issue an advisory or deny a train permission to use the trestle, he said he didn’t have the exact figures.
“It was something that was unforeseen,” said DeGraff, who credited the crew for applying the brakes at the right moment and preventing more damage from happening. “We were attempting to get the train off the bridge to a safe place.”
Roberts said train dispatchers should not be making those kinds of minute-to-minute judgment calls in the first place. He said there should be a rule that bars trains from crossing the bridge when the severity of the forecast from the National Weather Service reaches a certain point.
“We are subject to weather changes in this region that happen by the hour,” Roberts said. “Nothing is out of the ordinary.”
Ultimately, the rail traffic was only briefly interrupted. After the derailment, the line was reopened by about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Public Belt Railroad.
Officials brought in a Texas-based company called Hulcher Services, which specializes in train derailments. Hulcher put the derailed cars that didn’t fall off the trestle back on the tracks, and then moved those off the line, clearing the way for train traffic to resume.
DeGraff said Hulcher then started breaking up the fallen containers and cars into pieces small enough to be loaded onto dump trucks and hauled away. Crews went at the wreckage with a pair of cranes, an excavator, a backhoe and a bulldozer, he said.
WWL-TV reporter Paul Murphy contributed to this report.