No one was injured when an Alaska Railroad freight train derailed early Tuesday after plowing into avalanche debris south of Girdwood.
The Anchorage-bound train struck a large pile of debris that covered the tracks near rail mile post 71.5 — or for drivers, near Mile 87 of the Seward Highway — by the time the train got to that section at about 2 a.m., said Christy Terry, a spokeswoman for the railroad. Two locomotives were derailed and a third was partially derailed.
The train had departed from Whittier with nearly 7,000 tons of freight, Terry said.
It wasn’t immediately clear at what time the avalanche occurred or how fast the train was going when it hit the slide. The debris spread roughly 300 feet across the tracks, according to Justin Shelby, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Seven firefighters responded to the derailment along with officials from the Alaska Railroad and state transportation department, Girdwood Fire and Rescue wrote in a social media post. A rescue team of three firefighters and one Alaska Railroad employee crossed a section of ice and then climbed over the avalanche debris to the train after making sure it was safe to do so.
Two employees were aboard the 3,144-foot train when it derailed, Terry said. Both extricated themselves and Girdwood medics escorted them to the highway for evaluation, emergency officials said. Neither was injured, Terry said.
The firefighters finished the call by around 4 a.m., the department said.
During the day Tuesday, the transportation department triggered avalanches in the area to control the fall of any additional slide-prone snow, Shelby said.
An excavator could be seen approaching the trapped engine from the north Tuesday afternoon as it cleared away the snow encapsulating the train. Railroad personnel will continue assessing safety as they clear debris from the area, Terry said. They are only working during daylight hours for safety reasons, she said.
Once some of the avalanche work is completed, railroad officials will be better able to determine the extent of the damage and whether there will be any disruptions to rail service, Terry said. As of Tuesday afternoon, no other scheduled freight train service was impacted, railroad officials said, but that could change as cleanup progressed.
Avalanches along the Seward Highway are common, but it’s unusual for that much debris to pile up, said Wendy Wagner, director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. The avalanche released naturally, Wagner said.
About a foot of snow fell overnight in Turnagain Pass, farther south on the Seward Highway, creating considerable avalanche danger there. Avalanche conditions throughout much of the region are dangerous right now and may continue to be dangerous through the season, Wagner said.
On top of new snow and wind causing avalanche issues in the upper part of the snowpack, weaker snow layers located near the base mean the whole snowpack is unstable, she said.
The persistent avalanche problem in the snowpack will take a long time to resolve, Wagner said. She advised anyone traveling in the backcountry to use caution.
Tuesday’s slide occurred within a section of track along Turnagain Arm and south past Girdwood that’s prone to avalanches given the “precipitous terrain and large snowfalls,” according to a 2009 article presented at a snow science workshop in Switzerland by David Hamre, at the time an avalanche forecaster for the railroad. Hamre catalogued nearly two dozen avalanche paths affecting about 12 miles of track.
An avalanche killed a railroad employee on the Seward Highway in 2000. Kerry Brookman, 53, was using a bulldozer to clear the remnants of a snow slide from the highway north of Girdwood when a second avalanche hit, crushing him and carrying the dozer into Turnagain Arm.
A freight train was derailed in 2009 after being struck by an avalanche near Portage. At least 10 cars were buried by the debris, according to reports at the time.
[Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the avalanche was located near rail mile post 71.5, not Mile 71.5 of the Seward Highway.]