They say that “brown stuff” happens. That it sometimes hits the fan. No matter what you do, no matter how you prepare, how you plan, a trip and fall is inevitable. Eventually. The law of averages insists upon it…and almost no one gets a free pass. It can hurt and be embarrassing and even cost one dearly in a multitude of ways. We’ve all been there. Now put that in context of a railway, where everything’s done on a massive scale. One stumble and it could get pretty darn ugly.
And that’s just what happened here. Seen in this post, the aftermath of a derailment in Bawlf Alberta, bent and busted potash hoppers just down from the site where it all unfolded, mounted on flat cars to be taken away to somewhere. There, right in town, within sight of the busy highway, within sight of everyone impacted or effected by it, a temporary monument of sorts to the event. A reminder of what can happen when it all falls apart.
On May 13th, a Saturday, a westbound Canadian Pacific Railway freight, carrying potash, left the rails just outside the tiny community, the cars piling up near the cemetery. The cause has not been made public as of the publishing of this article. But it could have been anything. A track problem, a car problem, some catastrophic failure in something. Who knows? Trains don’t derail easily, nor often, so what ever it was, it was out of the ordinary and quite honestly an eventuality no one could have ever planned for. A “that stuff” happens moment.
Interestingly, it’s said this very train was involved in another “oopsie”, an earlier derailment, some days prior in Saskatchewan. Now there’s a big ‘ole can of worms! The railways says the two are unrelated. Make of it what you will.
Many dozen cars left the tracks, piling up side to side and keeping fairly close together. It’s not said how long the entire train was, but it’s not odd for ones handling bulk material like potash to be quite long – a hundred cars or more. The product is such that it can only be moved economically in great quantity (each mine can feed several trains per day, every day).
Based on photos of the derailment site we’ve seen from new sources (we could not get close to see first hand on account of security – we pulled our journalist cards to no avail) most cars remained relatively upright with some breaking open and spilling their contents. Potash, mostly used a a fertilizer, is pretty benign stuff, so there was no real danger of it contaminating anything.
We visited in June, a full month after the derailment, and cleanup was still ongoing. These things take a while it seems. Only a short distance away, but out of view of our cameras, one could hear machinery busily working at the site and from what we could see there was still some ten or so cars still on the ground.
They been loading the potash hoppers, once emptied, onto flat cars. Often times one involved in derailments are cut up and scrapped on site, but here, they’re headed somewhere. No idea the reason and to where – no one’s talking of course (understandably). We called the CPR, pulled our journalist card yet again and yet again were told to pound sand. Oh, we get such love! We’re no experts, but it seems most if not all them were bashed up beyond repair. That raises some questions. Why go through the cost to move them? Perhaps to study what went wrong? Something for insurance? One can only guess.
The stretch of track here is secondary line seeing a reasonable number of trains per day. Speeds are modest. The rails came though Bawlf in around 1905 concurrent with the town being established, the line runing west from Saskatchewan to a connections with the CPR’s North/South mainline running between Edmonton and Calgary at Wetaskiwin. The closest good size town to Bawlf is Camrose.
Lots of potash heads west to the coast from where its mined in Saskatchewan, for eventual export to any number of overseas destinations. There’s an endless parade of these trains in Calgary.
The derailment and general perceptions. The first thing on everyone’s mind…what if the train derailed in town and not just outside? What if it took out that huge elevator and it collapsed? What if it derailed while I waited at the crossing for it to pass? What if it was a dreaded oil train – what if it was Lac-Mégantic all over again? Could it happen again? Is the railway being negligent? Are trains out to kill us? Of course, everyone local is hyper-sensitive on the subject now that it’s happened. Can’t blame them. A train is huge and packs a great deal of momentum.
Still, it’s a once in the blue moon thing. Cold comfort for anyone seriously impacted by a derailment, yes, but reality none the less. Trains don’t come off the rails often, no more than planes crash often. Just when they do, it’s generally spectacular. Statistically, it’s a safe way for stuff to be moved around and has been for coming on two centuries now. Even so, I bet the CPR will be happy when this is behind them and forgotten about.
Can’t imagine the noise the derailment made – bet every resident in the quiet burg heard it. One local we chatted with said it sounded like the world was ending and then called it “dodging a bullet”.
There’s a wood grain elevator in Bawlf, a rather rare beast these days. It makes an interesting backdrop for all those dented and bent rail cars. It’s from the 1980s, so is a late example of that design, what was the most iconic structure ever to defined the prairies. This one is still used by a commercial firm (Canada Malting). In times past there were many others here. Same can be said for most prairie towns – they used to be everywhere. Now, not so much.
There’s a limited number of categories on this website which this post could be filed under – in this case “other fun” was all that worked. A train derailment fun? I know. A big shoulder shrug from us – we need to rethink the structure of this site perhaps.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2017.
Location: Bawlf, AB.
Article references and thanks: PostMedia Network, Canada Malting.
Everything you see was shot from property from which permission was obtained.