A semi-trailer driver was killed when a train derailed as it crossed a bridge over Interstate 25 north of Pueblo on Sunday, authorities said.
The bridge collapsed and coal and mangled train cars were spewed across the interstate, which was indefinitely closed in both directions at milepost 106, which is just north of Pueblo.
The 60-year-old driver was initially said to be trapped, but authorities said Monday that he had died. No other vehicles were involved in the derailment, Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Gayle Perez told The Associated Press on Monday.
The bridge partially collapsed when the train hauling 124 cars of coal derailed at about 3:30 p.m. Sunday just as the semitrailer truck passed beneath it, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Thirty cars derailed, the agency said.
Investigators from the NTSB arrived Monday at the site, just north of Pueblo and about 114 miles south of Denver. They will determine the cause after looking at the adequacy of prior track inspections, the condition and maintenance history of the bridge and any issues with the train or rail cars, the agency said in a statement. A preliminary report will be released in 30 days.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, that he is in touch with Gov. Jared Polis about the derailment and that he had been briefed by the Federal Railroad and Federal Highway administrations.
The state patrol and Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office posted photos and videos showing a partially collapsed bridge over the interstate with the semi-truck caught beneath. The images also showed a pileup of train cars, train wheels scattered across the scene and loads of coal covering a portion of the highway.
Officials were directing drivers to avoid the area coal and train cars were removed from the road. Motorists were being detoured around the closure on U.S. 50 and Colorado 115.
It could take as long as 48 hours to clear the coal and other debris and make the highway passable, Polis said. That work won’t begin until federal investigators give the state clearance to proceed, he said. He added that Colorado had been waiting months to receive federal money already dedicated for safety and rail projects.
“Those improvements come too late to prevent this incident,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “I am saddened that a life was lost in this train derailment and send my condolences to his family and loved ones.”
The bridge was built in 1958, Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Bob Wilson said.
Former NTSB accident investigator Russell Quimby said the most likely scenario was that the derailed cars slammed into the side of the bridge, causing the girders that support it to be displaced and causing the bridge to fall. Potential sabotage or vandalism also will be looked at by investigators, he said.
“Usually that’s pretty obvious,” Quimby said. “If they find something that looks like some kind of vandalism or foul play, they would call in the FBI and it would become a crime scene.”
There were no reported injuries to BNSF crew, according to Kendall Kirkham Sloan, a spokesperson for the Fort Worth, Texas-based freight railroad. BNSF personnel were working with responding agencies to clear the incident as safely as possible, Kirkham Sloan said.
Unlike highway bridges, government agencies don’t catalog rail bridges and it’s largely up to the railroads to inspect and maintain the ones that they own. Federal officials monitor the inspection programs through audits but there is no inventory on the condition of the bridges.
There are somewhere between 61,000 and more than 100,000 railroad bridges across the U.S., according to figures provided by the Federal Railway Administration. The agency defines bridges as having a span of 20 feet or more, whereas some railroads count even short crossings over culverts as bridges.
Congress established the parameters of the government’s oversight of bridges and railway administration officials have previously said they were not able to alter that approach unilaterally.
Sunday’s accident follows a railroad bridge collapse in June along a Montana Rail Link route in southern Montana that sent railcars with oil products plunging into the Yellowstone River, spilling molten sulfur and up to 250 tons of hot asphalt. The collapse, which remains under investigation, involved a steel truss bridge.
That’s different than the type of bridge that Colorado officials said collapsed on Sunday. The bridge near Pueblo was a 188-feet long steel girder bridge, said Wilson. It was 14 feet feet wide with a clearance of 16.3 feet, he said.
Despite the two recent accidents, Quimby said it’s “extremely” unusual for rail bridges to collapse. Quimby said bridges are key pieces of railroad networks and companies have a vested interest in properly maintaining them. Some railroad bridges are more than a century old but still in good repair, he said.
“The railroads take much better care of their bridges than our government does of our road and highway bridges,” he said. “If you have a bridge out, that’s a major problem.”
At least 111 railroad accidents have been caused by bridge failures or bridge misalignments since 1976, according to an Associated Press review of federal accident records. That’s just over two accidents annually on average.
Combined, those derailments caused about $40 million in damages, the records show. That figure does not include the June derailment. Only one of the accidents involved a fatality, when one person was killed and dozens of people injured after an Amtrak train derailed in Arizona in 1997 while crossing a bridge damaged by runoff from heavy rain.
President Joe Biden had been scheduled to visit CS Wind, the world’s largest facility for wind tower manufacturing, in Pueblo on Monday, but postponed the trip to stay in Washington and focus on the growing conflict in the Middle East. The White House said just a few hours before Biden was set to take off for the trip that it would be rescheduled.