5 days after Tempe Town Lake train derailment, crews prepare to rebuild the partially collapsed bridge

By Paulina Pineda for azcentral.com

Excavators and construction trucks lined the north and south banks of Tempe Town Lake on Monday, five days after a Union Pacific train derailed and caught fire while crossing the lake. Crews are clearing the way for workers to continue to assess the damage and begin rebuilding. 

All the hazardous materials and train cars have been removed from the site.

Union Pacific contractors were prepping Monday to bring in two cranes as part of the bridge reconstruction effort, said Clint Schelbitzki, Union Pacific spokesperson.

The Town Lake track branches off Union Pacific’s interstate line to pick up and deliver freight to metro Phoenix.

There is no estimate yet for when the bridge repairs will begin, when it will be operational or how much it will cost, Schelbitzki said at a Monday news briefing.

“All I can commit to is that we’ll continue doing this as quickly as possible, as safely as possible,” Schelbitzki said. 

He clarified that the company doesn’t expect the repairs to take months. Each day will provide a clearer picture of how long work will take, he said. 

The Union Pacific Railroad freight train derailed shortly after 6 a.m. on July 29 as it crossed Tempe Town Lake on the 108-year-old bridge. Eight to 10 cars caught fire and the bridge’s south side collapsed, sending three cars into an empty park and Rio Salado Parkway below.

Two of the cars contained cyclohexanone, a colorless industrial chemical that is used as a solvent and in metal degreasing. About 500 gallons leaked from one of the overturned cars into a city storm drain that leads to a dry riverbed west of the lake. Union Pacific is testing water and soil samples to determine the environmental impacts of the chemical.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

City staff from various departments will be at the scene this week to assess damage to Rio Salado Parkway and Tempe Beach Park. The city hopes to reopen a portion of the park in the coming week.

Reconstruction underway

Crews worked through the weekend to remove all the train cars from the tracks and to clear debris from the crash and the subsequent demolition of a 150-foot portion of the bridge on Sunday, Schelbitzki said.

Once the crane pads are installed and the cranes are brought in, crews will begin installing bridge supports, he said.

Union Pacific intends to rebuild the portions of the bridge that collapsed and demolished, rather than the entire bridge. Inspectors deemed the rest of the bridge was structurally safe, although officials are still assessing what repairs are needed, Schelbitzki said.

Crews will work to ensure that the historical aspect of the standing bridge remains intact, he said.

The steel-beamed trestle bridge was built in 1912 and features a nine-span steel structure with Pratt-type trusses, a common design in the early 1900s favored for their “simplicity, economy of metal, and other engineering features,” according to a history of rail engineering in the Library of Congress.

The part that is being reconstructed likely will look different. 

“We heard very early on from the city that it was important to maintain the bridge, the truss bridge look,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can over Town Lake to make sure that stays the case.”

Union Pacific officials have had initial discussions with the city about what the new part of the bridge will look like and Tempe will have an opportunity to weigh in on the design, Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said at the briefing.

Part of park to reopen in coming days

City engineers conducted a preliminary assessment of damage to city-owned property on Monday but employees from various departments, including Public Works and Parks and Recreation, will be at the lake this week making further evaluations.

Work to city-owned property will begin once bridge construction is underway and Union Pacific gives Tempe the go-ahead to move into the area.

Tempe Town Lake and Tempe Beach Park remain closed but the city hopes to reopen a portion of the park east of the bridge soon, said Tempe Fire Medical Assistant Chief Andrea Glass.

Rio Salado Parkway also remains closed in the area, with no timeline for when it will reopen.

Union Pacific testing for contaminants

Union Pacific, which is working to assess the environmental impact of the crash, took water samples from the spillway west of the dam and sediment samples in areas downstream of the spillway on Friday.

The samples are being tested for the presence of “volatile organic compounds” from the cyclohexanone that spilled and potential contaminants associated with a foam that fire officials used to keep the material from igniting at the crash scene, said Caroline Oppleman, a spokesperson with Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Glass, with Tempe fire, said the foam did not contain any of the chemicals that are commonly associated with firefighting foam that can be toxic.

ADEQ, which is overseeing the environmental cleanup and Union Pacific’s testing, requested that the results of the analysis be expedited and results are expected this week, Oppleman said.

Toxic chemicals:Two workers exposed at Tempe train derailment site

The agency will review the results to determine what remediation, if any, is needed.

Tempe also tested water in Tempe Town Lake for contaminants but the results weren’t yet available.

As part of the emergency response effort, Union Pacific cleaned and disposed of the spilled cyclohexanone at the crash site and around the storm drain, Oppleman said.

The company flushed out the storm drain with clean water all the way to where it reaches the dry riverbed west of the lake and disposed of any materials in the area.  

Union Pacific contractors deployed containment booms, floating barriers typically used to contain oil spills, to trap debris from the crash and construction on the surface of the lake. Containment booms still float on the surface of the water, trapping materials as they move downstream, which will make it easier for crews to remove the material from the water.

Investigation into the crash continues

Union Pacific, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration are investigating the cause of the crash.

Schelbitzki said the company is “looking at a number of factors” but did not provide more information about the investigation.

The FBI, which was assisting Tempe Police Department with the criminal investigation, has concluded its investigation and turned the investigation back over to police, said Assistant Police Chief Sherry Burlingame.

The department still is completing its report, she said.

The department previously said there was no indication that criminal activity caused the derailment, but was investigating as a precaution.

Updated: August 6, 2020 — 11:34 AM

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