The investigation of a loaded coal train derailment in Gothenburg on Feb. 21 indicates that flat spots or other defects in the wheels of rail cars were to blame.

The wheels damaged a “rail joint bar” as the train went over it, causing the derailment, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a report published on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

The train derailed around 1.45 a.m. in two places inside the Gothenburg city limits — just east of Cottonwood Drive as well as about a quarter mile farther east. No one was injured.

All three sets of tracks were blocked by the wreckage until 8 a.m. that morning, when one set of rails re-opened. A second set of tracks opened the next morning, observers on the scene said.

Pile of wreckage near Cottonwood Drive. Photos by Kat Tedder.

The eastbound coal train was nearly three miles long.

Reports ignored

Union Pacific has “wheel impact load detectors (WILDs)” at various points along the rails that are designed to identify wheels that make dangerous “high impact” with the rails.

Reports from those detectors were apparently ignored. The FRA said one of the freight cars had high-impact readings in November, December and January, the three months leading up to the derailment.

Also, the FRA identified eight other freight cars in the derailed train that had high-impact wheels.

WILDs measure the impact on the rail in what are called KIPs (1,000 pounds of force). High-impact wheels are generally considered to have more than 90 KIPs.

One of the freight cars on the derailed train had a WILD measurement of 130.6 KIPs — more than double the proper amount of force — when the car went over the track joint bar that was found broken, the FRA report says.

Proper procedure

Specifically, wheels with a WILD measurement greater than 80 KIPs should be replaced when in a repair shop, and wheels with a WILD measurement greater than 90 KIPs should be replaced when found in any location, the FRA said.

Farther down the line

(This report was published first in the Bulletin’s Sept. 13 print edition.)

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