2010-08-14

Tiny Town Railroad Derailment

Seldom does a tourist railroad lead the nightly newscast for something other than a major disaster, a miniature railroad doubly so. Wednesday, August 11th, a morning train making it's trip around the 15-inch gauge Tiny Town railroad was northbound along the roadway through South Turkey Creek Canyon toward the northern end of the park with 30 passengers aboard. Heading into a curve, the train derailed, spilling the 2-6-0 live steam engine #10 and ending with five of the six cars on the ground. The last car was a caboose loaded with children.

At least 15 of the passengers were injured, with mostly scrapes and bruises, but also lacerations and broken bones. None of the injuries appeared life-threatening. In all, the passengers--ranging from children to grandparents--were very calm after the accident, helping the injured and sitting down in the shade of the trees until first responders arrived. Five children and seven adults were taken to Swedish Medical Center, and two passengers were hospitalized at Swedish Medical Center with serious injuries.

Begun in 1915 and first opened to the public in 1920, Tiny Town has developed a small but loyal following. The railroad was added in 1939, and park thrived, becoming as well known as attractions like Pikes Peak and Buffalo Bill's Grave. With a 1951 re-routing of US 285, the park no longer had the daily exposure to travelers from Denver, and Tiny Town's struggle for existence began. Between 1966 and 1988, Tiny Town closed and reopened three times. Since the last reopening, the railroad is the centerpiece of the attraction, with a refreshment stand and playground.

So what caused the derailment? Owing to the placement of the cars after the wreck, it looks like the train was going too fast for the curve, which would  be an operational error. Investigators confirmed this when they spoke with the engineer, who was shaken up by the accident. According to a Denver Post article on August 13th,
Cher Haavind, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said the train operator told investigators he realized he was going much faster than 3 mph — too fast for the approaching turn. He "panicked" and reached for the wrong lever. Instead of grabbing the brake, he pulled the lever that accelerated the train.
Every model railroader has seen the same accident on their layout at least once when a train going faster than a turn will allow jumps the tracks and rolls over on the outside of the curve. Only 24 hours before, the track at Tiny Town had been the main focus of a random inspection by Joseph Ewald, a state auditor, who  found the track before the accident to be in good condition. The railroad's operating record from 2008 to this year is clean except for this one accident.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's office found the engineer not criminally liable following their investigation of the accident. "(The engineer) did everything in his power to stop the train," Sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said, noting the levers on the engine had all been pushed into the "brake" position. Any civil suits against the railroad have not yet been reported.

Supporters of the railroad are surprised at the accident but still enthusiastic about returning to ride the railroad. Sara Richardson and her sons, who ride the railroad so often that they've become members, had just gotten off the train before the accident. Richardson says her boys might be shaken up by what they saw, but she says witnessing the accident won't keep them away. Tamara Higgins, another supporter, called the derailment a "freak accident" and said "we look forward to coming back."

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