Two trains crash north of Two HarborsCanadian National Railway has confirmed that a crash involving two trains occurred today north of Two Harbors on a CN track near Brimson.
Two Canadian National Railway trains collided north of Two Harbors Thursday on a CN track in Brimson.
A preliminary report on the head-on train collision near Two Harbors said a dispatcher gave the trains permission to occupy the same track.
Another report first obtained by TRAINS.com said that Canadian National, which owns the rail line where the collision occurred, is blaming employee failure for the cause of the accident.
All five crew members were injured and hospitalized from the collision; two are still in Duluth hospitals.
The crash occurred about 4 p.m., according to witnesses at the scene at Boomers Road Railroad Crossing west of Highway 2 about 12 miles north of Two Harbors.
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron declined to characterize the extent of the injuries, but said Thursday night that two of the five crew members were being treated and expected to be released from Lake View Memorial Hospital in Two Harbors.
Three of the injured were in one train and two were in the other, according to Waldron. No one else was on either train at the time of the crash.
One train with empty iron-ore cars was heading north, away from Two Harbors, while the other train was loaded with ore and heading south on the same stretch of track.
The train heading north had three locomotives and was pulling 118 empty cars at the time of the crash. As the two trains hit each other, one locomotive in the northbound train derailed, but they all remained upright. Behind them, five empty cars spilled off the tracks in an S-shape — two on one side and three on the other side of the tracks, with one car completely on its side. The train had just rounded a gradual western bend.
The southbound train, with three locomotives pulling 116 cars full of taconite, had two locomotives and eight cars derail, spilling taconite.
Crews from CN, including environmental teams, planned to spend the night cleaning up the site, Waldron said. He wasn’t sure how long it would take.
Waldron said he didn’t know how fast the trains were moving upon impact and that the collision is under investigation.
A recently retired trainmaster, conductor and dispatcher for Canadian National, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, described how crews and trains typically operate on those tracks.
“The trains leave Two Harbors and go to various mines,” the source said. “They average 116 cars, mostly three engines. That’s standard.
“They run empty out of Two Harbors and go to the mines. They load and return the train to Two Harbors in an 11½- or 12-hour shift.”
Most trains are operated by an engineer and a conductor, the source said, and sometimes a train might also have a brakeman along. CN officials said one of the trains involved in Thursday’s accident had two employees on board and that the other had three.
The former trainmaster said a student engineer was the third person on the southbound train Thursday.
“The engineer is in charge of safe handling of the train,” the source said. “The conductor is the one who does the radio work with the dispatcher, gets the track warrants — the authority to run on the track. When they get up to the mine, the conductor is in charge of watching the mine load it. He’s in charge of the paperwork.”
A track warrant is clearance that a section of track is clear and that a train may proceed on it, the source said.
It’s common for a southbound, loaded train to pull off on a siding to be weighed, the source said. If an unloaded northbound train is in the vicinity, the loaded train’s track warrant would allow it to return to the main track only after verifying that the northbound train had cleared the siding, he said.
“They physically read the engine number (of the northbound train), and then when they know it’s the train they were supposed to meet, they can go,” he said.
Northbound trains, traveling empty, typically travel up to the limit of track speed, which is 35 to 40 mph, although they may go slower climbing the hill out of Two Harbors. Southbound trains don’t usually travel up to track speed.
“Loaded trains have many hills to conquer where they can’t go nearly that fast. They may be going 8 to 12 mph (in those places). They’re pulling up to 10,000 trailing tons,” he said.
When two trains are on the same track, it’s typical for one train to pull off on a siding to let the other pass, the source said.
“It happens every day in a million places,” he said. “It’s called a ‘train leap.’”
The trains are traveling in what the source called “dark territory,” meaning there are no signals along the track to warn of an oncoming train. The trains rely on dispatchers and track warrants to travel a specific piece of track.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a four-member team of investigators to the train wreck site.