Anchorage Daily News
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 1998
By LIZ RUSKIN, Daily News reporter
A slope loaded with wet, heavy snow avalanched in the mountains south of Portage over the weekend, sweeping three loaded coal cars off Alaska Railroad tracks and closing the rail route to Seward.
The route remained closed Monday evening. Railroad officials, fearful of another avalanche, didn't let workers into the area to repair the rails and couldn't say when the line would be reopened.
The derailment dumped some 300 tons of coal at a spot called Tunnel, 12 miles south of Portage and about 50 miles north of Seward. No one was hurt, but the avalanche took out 200 feet of rail.
The train, hauling coal from the mine in Healy to the port in Seward, was not moving and had no one aboard when the avalanche struck. Each car carried about 105 tons of coal.
"We don't know how to get them out yet," said Alaska Railroad spokesman Scott Banks, of the derailed cars. He said, though, that the railroad would retrieve the cars and cleanup all the coal.
The area of the avalanche, a known slide zone, is just north of Grandview, the destination of the annual Ski Train, the popular event sponsored by the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage.
Saturday morning, when the coal-laden train headed toward Seward, it had 66 cars and weighed nearly 8,600 tons, Banks said.
To climb the steep grade to Grandview, the train is normally split in two at Spencer, about 10 miles south of Portage. That morning, with six inches of fresh snow on the tracks, the engines had trouble hauling 33 cars, so railroad workers decided to split the train again. They left 16 cars at Tunnel and took 17 cars on to Grandview. Before they could return for the remaining 16, the railroad's avalanche expert told them to stop because the area was unsafe.
It's not great to leave railroad cars in a slide zone, but it's worse to endanger lives by sending in people to remove the cars, said avalanche forecaster David Hamre.
"I felt the risk was too high," Hamre said
He was right about that.
Workers bringing a locomotive from Portage discovered the slide at 6:15 p.m. It had pushed the first three cars off the tracks, nearly burying the middle car in snow. The avalanche also piled up against the next six cars, but they remained on the tracks.
Sunday morning, after a safety meeting, railroad workers removed all but the three derailed cars. Hamre shot down more of the snow load to prevent more uncontrolled slides.
Hamre had been keeping his eye on the Tunnel slide zone. The cold weather in January had left a layer of sparkly snow, called "surface hoar," high on the slopes in the area, he said. If enough snow piled on top of the surface hoar, a slide was likely.
"Nothing sticks to that," he said.
But how much snow was enough to set off an avalanche? It snows 500 inches a year in that area, so an avalanche forecaster can't overreact.
"It's an inexact science. You don't know if it'll take two or four inches," he said. "If you told them not to bring a train through every time it snowed, the trains wouldn't run."
A few storms came through during the week, causing minor slides. Then, Saturday morning it began to snow heavily.
At 10 or 11 in the morning, snow on some slopes began to slide naturally, and avalanche technicians responsible for the slopes around the highway started setting others off with recoilless rifles. That's when Hamre called a stop to work in the slide zone near Tunnel.
Banks said the railroad had hoped to fix the tracks by Monday evening, but Hamre said the avalanche danger was still too high.
Two or three coal trains usually go to Seward each week, bringing coal from Healy to the docks, where it is loaded on ships and sent to Asia.
The derailment should not effect the Grandview Ski Train, scheduled this year for Feb. 21 and 28, Banks said.
Officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation said they will ask the railroad to find out if the coal will effect any streams. If it does, the railroad will have to work with the DEC and the Department of Fish and Game on a cleanup plan.