So many train derailments feature train cars spilling into or near waterways for a simple reason: That's where the tracks run.
Rivers and railroads: When trains derail, water is often nearby. Blame decisions made 150 years ago.
Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
Wed, April 12, 2023 at 6:52 PM EDT·6 min read
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – The kayaker floating down the Colorado River looked up from a peaceful passage downstream as Amtrak's California Zephyr rumbled past.
Rolling on narrow rails supporting a pair of 460,000-pound locomotives and several cars, the train banked around a curve just feet from the water's edge and vanished toward California.
The #5 had already followed the Colorado River for more than 100 miles through the narrow canyons of its headwaters in central Colorado and would follow it for another 100 miles before diverging in eastern Utah to head to Salt Lake City.
Not only Amtrak's passenger trains use the tracks, though – loaded freight trains roll alongside the river that supplies more than 40 million Americans with water across seven states, twice as many as are served by the Mississippi River.
A kayaker floats down the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon next to Union Pacific railroad tracks.
In addition to the Colorado River, train tracks run collectively for thousands of miles along other major waterways, from the White River bordering Vermont and New Hampshire to New York's Hudson River; the Mississippi River in Louisiana; the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon; and portions of the Missouri River.
That's why train derailments tangling with waterways are an predictable problem. In the past decades, it's happened in Alabama
, West Virginia
and other states.
Not all of them have led to water contamination or other pollution, but now a series of high-profile train derailments around the country
is focusing new attention on this old problem.
Decisions made more than 150 years ago about where to run railroad tracks have significant consequences today when trains derail. And some experts say climate change, which is altering rainfall and flooding patterns, could increase the risk of washouts and mudslides on tracks.
"Railroads are next to rivers everywhere," said former locomotive engineer Fritz Edler, 69, a spokesman for Railroad Workers United, a union group. "And we don't get to distinguish where we have a derailment."
DATABASE: Hundreds of trains derail every year. Search our database to see how much damage they do.
BACKGROUND: Trains keep derailing all over the country. What's going on?
Amtrak's California Zephyr train climbs out of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, through Glenwood Canyon, alongside the Colorado River, on its way east to Denver.
Why are so many railroads next to rivers?
In the rush to build railroads across America, construction engineers often followed rivers, which people had historically used to travel.
River ports were where cities initially grew, and European settlers spread out from there, following waterways like the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Further west, rivers like the Colorado helpfully carved paths through the Rockies that railroad workers exploited to lay track.
That's why so many of the recent derailments have featured train cars spilling into or near waterways: That's where the tracks run.
"And the fact of the matter is that many interstate highways go along the same routes, for the exact same reason – you're seeking the path of least geographic resistance," said Paul Hammond, a train historian and executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum.
It's the path of least geographic resistance. Trucks carrying hazardous and other freight also travel next to the rivers and also have accidents contaminating rivers.