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BNSF has seen its share of accidents, like most others in railroad industry

WILLMAR -- Railroad train derailments are inevitable, just like crashes on highways, according to a railroad industry observer.

"As long as you have human beings running things, they will make mistakes that cause them, and also you have fallible material: you'll have rails that will break and that type of thing,'' says Andy Cummings, associate editor of Trains Magazine of Waukesha, Wis.

"I would say that inevitably there will be derailments just like on the freeways there will be accidents,'' he said.

However, Cummings said rail transportation is very safe compared with highways.

"But periodically these things do happen,'' he told the Tribune. "You've got railroads across the country and there are at least little derailments that happen on a daily basis. Now, hazardous release ... is a much more rare event.''

The Tribune asked Cummings for his thoughts on railroad accidents, derailments and safety after more than 80 cars on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed at Clara City early Monday.

An acid spill forced hundreds to evacuate and schools to close.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration Web site, all railroad accidents were down 26.2 percent during the period from 1998 to 2007, from 9,592 in 1998 to 7,076 in 2007.

Under the category of derailments listed by the railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway had a slight increase -- .37 percent -- during the period from 1,093 in 1998 to a high of 1,433 in 2004, declining to 1,097 in 2007, according to the Federal Railroad Administration Web site.

Two retired railroad employees who were interviewed by the Tribune on Monday agree accidents and derailments can be caused by factors such as equipment failure and human error.

Retired conductor Bob Feichtinger of Willmar thinks the railroad has taken adequate measures to ensure safety.

"I think most train crews are indoctrinated well enough that they're pretty safe operators, which made the job better for us,'' Feichtinger said.

One of his fears was colliding with a gas truck. He remembers an incident in which a tanker truck barely crossed the tracks in Litchfield as the train was traveling through town at 50-55 mph.

"We could see he wasn't going to stop. We hit the floor, with the exception of the engineer who had to stay behind the throttle 'cause he had to throw it into emergency,'' said Feichtinger.

"When the truck got over the crossing, on the back it said in big letters: MILK. But we thought it was a gas truck, and we hit the floor. ... I was waiting for the big boom, not only the crash but the explosion.''

Elmond Ekblad of Willmar, a retired locomotive engineer with 43 years of experience with Great Northern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, said an engineman's biggest worry was hitting a school bus.

"I had quite a few close calls,'' said Ekblad.

The closest happened in the early 1960s when a bus barely stopped in time at a crossing two to three miles west of Atwater.

"He was so close to us I could see the kids in the bus putting their hands up ... I could see the kids screaming,'' Ekblad said.

The region has seen its share of railroad accidents over the decades, according to records at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Tribune archives. A sampling follows:

- On June 24, 1882, a derailment known as the Gravel Train Wreck occurred in which the train jumped the tracks between Kandiyohi and Atwater. Twenty people were killed.

- On Feb. 24, 1922, an eastbound passenger train with two lead locomotives collided head-on with a westbound double-header snowplow between Delano and Montrose. News accounts said the crew of the snowplow disregarded orders to pull off to a siding in order to let the passenger train pass.

- On April 1, 1943, 11 cars of an eastbound train loaded with dry peas, coal and lumber derailed one mile east of Grove City. A tie rod on one of the box cars came loose and jammed into the road bed, derailing the cars. No injuries were reported.

- On March 4, 1973, 23 cars of a Burlington Northern freight train carrying fresh and instant mashed potatoes derailed near Cottonwood. Heaters used to keep the fresh potatoes from freezing caught fire and burned several of the freight cars.

- On May 24, 1973, 15 cars of a freight train en route to Willmar derailed near Maynard. A transient passenger riding illegally received minor injuries.

- On June 14, 1984, two Burlington Northern trains collided head-on near Motley on.

- On Dec. 19, 1986, a freight car carrying nuclear waste was mistakenly routed to Willmar. A propane leak on a rail car forced evacuation on Oct. 15, 1987 in Willmar, and a Willmar man was killed in an accident in the Willmar rail yard on Jan. 29, 1992.