Crew finishes Gainesville train derailment cleanup

GAINESVILLE — A Norfolk Southern crew concluded its extended removal of the five train cars, including two filled with propane, that derailed near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Wellington Road on Sunday afternoon, but not before seizing up traffic during Monday morning’s commute.

“It certainly caused a terrific traffic snafu all over the area,” said Manassas mayor Marvin Gillum. “We’re just distressed to hear about things like that. It causes so much disorder.”

Police closed parts of U.S. 29 and Wellington Road as the fallen trains were carefully righted and then removed from the area.

The evacuation and the road closings were lifted Monday morning — 15 hours after the accident. Tyler Elementary School in Gainesville and Pace West School in Haymarket closed Monday as a precaution.

The mess began shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday, when a Norfolk Southern local train carrying three crew members was pulling away from a stop and five cars — four tankers and a flatbed — jumped the track, said Battalion Chief Hadden Culp, a Prince William County Fire and Rescue spokesman.

While no one was injured in the accident — the cause of which has not been determined — two tankers carrying up to 30,000 gallons each in explosive materials caused plenty of concern.

“The police told me it was all right, but I kept thinking, what if it blows up,” said Charles Suh, manager of the Exxon which was the closest building to the accident site. His and several other businesses were evacuated soon after the derailment. “I have 15,000 gallons of gasoline underground. Ah, I don’t even want to think about that.”

Although the accident did not cause an ignition, Culp said that the department had a contingency plan in place to combat a fire in the area.

“We had a rural supply operation set up. This is when there’s no fire hydrants in the area and we need to fill tankers with water from the nearest source,” Culp said. “We certainly took this very seriously. There was a lot of potential for problems.”

Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Bland, whose company is investigating the accident’s cause, said there are safeguards in place to keep explosive materials contained, even when the car rolls.

“There’s a special apparatus that, if they collide, cuts down on the possibility of a leak,” Bland said. “The tanks on both of the full cars didn’t receive any damage. They’ve been working on improving these cars for 20 to 25 years and they keep improving it.”

Bland said that there is no timeframe on when Norfolk Southern will release the cause of the accident, which slightly damaged superficial parts of the cars, but the investigators are looking at all of the variables.

Sunday’s accident came just a few hundred yards from the 1997 derailment, when a train slammed into a small building and injured a man. The victim was later awarded a settlement in the millions of dollars.

These incidents, along with the trio of Norfolk Southern derailments on the B-Line in Manassas in the past couple of years, has prompted concerns.

Gillum said that Norfolk Southern is in the process of building a crew change station on Bristow Road to cut down on train stops, which can lead to derailments, in Manassas.

“[The B-Line accidents] have caused a tremendous amount of distress,” Gillum said. “We’re in the process of correcting it and we hope that’s going to be quite helpful.”

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