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Train derailments and poor safety communication prompt worries at Siskiyou County’s Cantara Loop

Jane Vaughan
The Cantara Loop near Dunsmuir, CA has been the site of two train derailments this year.

Why do trains keep derailing at the Cantara Loop?

Tom Ferrel, a retired engineer, has grown used to the sound of heavy equipment driving by his house on its way to the train track to clean up the latest accident.

“They don’t get by without us knowing it because the house is just shaking under the weight,” he said. “I heard those two pieces of equipment go by at about 10 o’clock at night. And it’s like, uh oh. I think it’s another derailment!”

Jane Vaughan / JPR
Mount Shasta resident Tom Ferrel has grown used to heavy equipment lumbering by his house to clean up the latest train accident.

Ferrel lives a 20-minute walk away from the Cantara Loop in Mount Shasta. The loop is a tight curve in the track that goes over the Sacramento River, with an uphill grade trains have to navigate when going north. On a snow-dusted December afternoon, Ferrel pointed out apple orchards and animal tracks and described fishing and swimming in the river below.

But in mid-November, nine lumber cars tumbled off the track at this location. And it’s not the first time. The most famous derailment was in 1991, when thousands of gallons of herbicide spilled into the river, killing marine life and sickening people downstream. Derailments also occurred in the area of the curve in at least 1976, 2009, 2021, and a second derailment in 2022. Together, these incidents make up a disturbing pattern.

Part of the problem is the structure of the Cantara Loop. The turn has a tight radius and is built on an upgrade. Freight trains can be thousands of feet long. As they exit the curve, they accelerate up the canyon, creating tension on the remaining cars in the middle, like a curved string being pulled straight. The phenomenon is called string-lining, and it can cause the cars still in the loop to pop off the track. Weight distribution throughout the train can also play a factor in derailment.

“It keeps happening. That’s the discouraging thing,” Ferrel said. “They haven’t figured it out.”

He’s worried about a repeat of the 1991 environmental catastrophe.

Jane Vaughan / JPR
A nearby plaque honors the residents who helped restore the Sacramento River after the 1991 environmental disaster.

“It’s very concerning because they transport a lot of nasty stuff on rails, including increasingly oil. And it’s going to be horrid if it happens again,” he said.

This track is owned and maintained by Union Pacific Railroad, based in Omaha. They declined to comment for this story, saying in a statement, “Union Pacific works diligently to prevent derailments and other accidents. We continuously inspect our tracks, locomotives, and other equipment, and we utilize a variety of technology to inspect locomotives and railcar wheels. We also comply with all federal rules and regulations in working toward ensuring our trains operate safely.”

However, data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows that Union Pacific has been responsible for almost a third of accidents in California over the last 10 years.

According to a damning Federal Railroad Administration audit performed last fall, the FRA said it has “growing concerns” about “Union Pacific’s safety performance” and “the concerningly high number of safety incidents.” For example, inspectors found that Union Pacific inaccurately documented the location of hazardous material in a train, sometimes not listing it at all. The audit said Union Pacific’s track inspectors “lacked knowledge … that could also lead to an increased likelihood of derailments.”

Karl Alexy, Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety and Chief Safety Officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the organization has been “focusing in on Union Pacific.”

Still, he said there’s more concern about the company than about the Cantara Loop specifically.

“We are aware of a couple of incidents [at the Cantara Loop], and there is nothing outstanding out there that gives us great concern,” he said.

What is concerning is the lack of communication between Union Pacific and local emergency personnel. Bryan Schenone, Director of the Siskiyou County Office of Emergency Services, coordinates emergency response for the area, so he said he’s usually the first one called when something like this happens. But he said he was not notified in February or November when freight trains derailed at the Cantara Loop.

“Normally, as emergency manager, I would be contacted for that. I don’t know if they just didn’t feel that the contact needed to be pushed out. Normally, we should have been absolutely engaged in that,” Schenone said.

Jane Vaughan / JPR
A large metal guardrail has been installed to keep train cars from falling into the river again.

He said he usually has good communication with Union Pacific, but when he doesn’t know about an incident, he can’t help with emergency response or other vital needs. He hopes to continue conversations with the railroad and local senators in order to hold the company accountable.

“If it’s happened twice in 16 months, it’s not like it’s not gonna happen again. And we’ve been very lucky and very fortunate that they’ve been empty cars, they’ve been lumber cars. But what if they’re not?” he said.

Passenger trains run along this same track. Amtrak also declined to comment about any safety concerns, saying in a statement, “Amtrak’s highest priority is ensuring the safety of our passengers, our crews, and the communities we serve.”

Down at the track in the Cantara Loop, a massive metal guard rail was built in 2001 to keep cars from again spilling into the Sacramento River. But despite this safety feature and a scathing audit, trains continue to jump the track at the Cantara Loop.

Updated: December 16, 2022 at 8:20 AM PST
Clarification: this story has been updated to show that two train derailments occurred in the Cantara Loop in 2022.
Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.