Alaska Railroad freight train derails after running into avalanche debris near Girdwood

a train in snow
An Alaska Railroad freight train is surrounded by snow after driving into an avalanche slide near Girdwood early on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Two locomotives were derailed, but no injuries were reported. (Courtesy Alaska Railroad)

An Alaska Railroad freight train ran into avalanche debris on the tracks early Tuesday morning just south of Girdwood. 

Railroad officials said the impact derailed two locomotives, and partially derailed a third. Girdwood Fire and Rescue helped evacuate the two crew members in the lead locomotive. They were unharmed. 

“It’s definitely an unusual occurrence to have a train impacted,” said railroad spokesperson Christy Terry. 

The slide happened overnight before the northbound train arrived, a few miles south of Girdwood along Turnagain Arm. The train struck the debris just before 2 a.m. 

Justin Shelby, administrative operations manager for Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the slide didn’t directly impact motorists because it didn’t reach Seward Highway. Shelby said there were traffic delays later Tuesday morning, when the department conducted related avalanche mitigation work along the highway, between mileposts 85 and 88. 

The 3,144-foot long freight train itself and its 6,091 tons of freight were still out there on Tuesday afternoon. Terry said safety assessments and planning are underway, and more information will come Wednesday. 

“Any crews out there will only be during daylight hours just for safety reasons,” Terry said. “We’ll be able to finalize more of our plans to re-rail the locomotives and continue that freight train’s movement.” 

The train was bound from Whittier for Anchorage. 

Wendy Wagner, director of Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center, said weather Monday night made conditions ripe for avalanches across Girdwood, Turnagain Pass and eastern Turnagain Arm. 

“We had a quick hitting storm that actually put more – double the amount of snow than was expected overnight. So we call that sort of a quick, rapid loading situation, and that came in also with wind,” Wagner said. “When you get weather that comes in that quick, you can get natural avalanches, avalanches that just occur because of the weather.” 

Shelby with DOT reminded drivers to check the state’s traveler information phone number, mobile app or website before heading out. 

“Definitely check 511 before traveling,” Shelby said. “That’s where the most up to date information will be regarding any conditions affecting the highway, avalanche or otherwise.”

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Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.

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