Repairs to greenway damage from train derailment to restart this month

A locomotive engine rests between the train track and Tucker Road.
Three engines and 10 train cairs were derailed close to Wolftever Creek Greenway. January 15, 2023. (Photo by Ron Cabacungan)
A locomotive engine rests between the train track and Tucker Road. Three engines and 10 train cairs were derailed close to Wolftever Creek Greenway. January 15, 2023. (Photo by Ron Cabacungan)

Norfolk Southern, the railroad company with trains running through Collegedale day and night, granted the city approval to restart repairs of the Wolftever Creek Greenway, which was damaged by a train derailment last December.

Collegedale Public Works Director Eric Sines said damage to the popular walking trail disrupted easy access between the trail, the Thatcher Switch Recreation Area and Southern Adventist University’s campus. The city began repairs in the spring but was stopped by Norfolk Southern due to red tape, Sines told the Accent.

The derailment occurred on Dec. 20 when a train rammed into a 134-foot concrete truss beam on the back of a semi-trailer truck, as reported in a previous Accent article. The truck, headed toward the Apison Pike bridge construction site, was waiting for the light to turn green at the Tucker Road-Apison Pike intersection. Its heavy cargo did not clear the tracks. 

After the leading locomotive engine made contact with the beam, three engines and 10 cars became tangled and derailed, according to Sines, falling between the tracks and Tucker Road close to the greenway. Collegedale police arrested the truck driver, Jorge Luis Cruz-Vega, in January on three charges related to the incident, as reported in another Accent article. 

Although fuel and oil leaked into Wolftever Creek after the derailment, the city said there were no adverse effects. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sines)

However, Norfolk Southern informed Collegedale in January that it would reimburse the city for the total cost of repairs, currently projected at $138,600, Sines said. The city is also planning to submit bills to Norfolk Southern for the time and money it spent working through paperwork issues generated by the railroad company’s Public Projects Group, he explained, likely placing the final settlement cost between $150,000 and $160,000.

Sines said Norfolk Southern’s commitment to reimbursing the city for post-derailment construction is standard practice because the train company’s hasty cleanup project did more damage to the surrounding area than the derailment.

“The train [cars] themselves only broke up a small section of the track,” Sines said, “but when [Norfolk Southern] came in with the excavators and dozers to get the trains out of the way and bring in the new sections of track, they tore everything up. … Their number one priority is to get the track up and running. Whatever they have to move or deal with to get the track up and running, they don’t care.”

While speaking to the Chattanooga Times Free Press the morning after the derailment, Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said the company worked overnight to fix the track and expected repairs to take approximately 24 hours. The Accent reported at the time that the derailment occurred around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Sines confirmed that the track was fixed and trains were running that Wednesday morning. On Aug. 7, the Collegedale Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve an agreement detailing Norfolk Southern’s promise of reimbursement at a commission meeting.

Collegedale began repairing the greenway on May 29, Sines wrote in the email to the Accent. Norfolk Southern stopped the project on June 14 because proper procedure had not been followed.

“[Norfolk Southern] Public Projects Group out of Atlanta has made this project way more complicated and time consuming than necessary,” he wrote.

The group caused a four-month delay in what was meant to be a four-week project, although Collegedale had the go-ahead in May from its local track supervisor and its local Norfolk Southern representative, John Carden, to begin construction, Sines said. The project was close to completion — workers were planning to pour concrete soon — when the Public Projects Group found out. 

“They sent us an email telling us to cease and desist or they’d send out Norfolk Southern police to tell us to leave,” Sines said. “That’s when the project stopped, and we contacted the Public Projects Group and figured out the mountain of paperwork that they wanted and all the red tape.

The train derailment disrupted easy access between the greenway and Southern Adventist University’s campus. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sines)

The Accent contacted Carden, who said he was unable to comment at this time on construction caused by the train derailment or the Public Projects Group’s reasons for halting repairs.

Greenway and sidewalk repairs should be completed by mid-October, according to Sines, and Wright Brothers Construction Company hopes to repave Tucker Road and the Thatcher Switch Recreation Area’s parking lot next month as well. Sines said the company had planned to complete the project earlier but faced delays due to issues concerning its asphalt contractor and storm basin installations. 

“I call them about every other week, reminding them about it and putting pressure on them,” Sines said, “but they work at their own pace.”

Collegedale entered into an agreement with Norfolk Southern in the early 2000s to install a walking underpass beneath the train track. The city began repairs on that underpass and surrounding area after the derailment with that agreement in mind, Sines said.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” he continued. “ … What we’re doing, how we’re doing it, meets all their requirements. It’s just they didn’t have their paperwork done. They hadn’t reviewed our plans. I get [that] on new projects, where you’re supplying the railroad with a brand new project, … you want to have everything figured out. But we’re literally putting it back exactly the way it was.”

Collegedale agreed to pay Norfolk Southern up to $20,000 to review construction plans. Carden confirmed, however, that the company will reimburse the city for those fees in addition to construction costs, Sines said.

In addition to greenway and Tucker Road damage, the city was concerned about engine oil and diesel fuel leaking into Wolftever Creek. Marion Environmental performed remediation after the derailment, and Sines’ department installed floating booms in the creek to catch dangerous materials. Sines said Collegedale has not seen any adverse effects to its environment caused by the oil and fuel spillage. 

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