Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad President John Smith said last week's collision between a fully loaded log truck and a passenger train in southern Randolph County could have been much worse in terms of loss of life.
Smith, though, credits the solid construction of rail cars, improved safety measures at the Cheat Mountain crossing and a fast response from emergency services personnel for avoiding what could have been a catastrophic disaster.
"The response to this accident was overwhelming," Smith said in a press release. "It truly shows how we work together as a region-wide community to ensure the safety and well-being of our fellow citizens.
"We would like to express our deepest sympathies to the victims of last Friday's accident, especially to the family of the truck driver who lost his life," Smith added. "We would also like to commend and thank the emergency responders and various other agencies who came to the scene so swiftly and handled the situation with the utmost care and professionalism, ensuring the safety and medical aid of all injured parties."
Just 23 people were injured in the accident on one of the Cheat Mountain Salamander's fall foliage excursions. Sixty-three passengers and four crew members were aboard the train at the time of the accident. As of Wednesday afternoon, two people remained hospitalized at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. Both are listed in good condition.
Smith told The Inter-Mountain in an exclusive interview that one of the primary reasons for the lack of serious injuries on the train was the overall solid construction of the cars.
The passenger cars, Smith said, are built to extremely high standards, with federal government regulations dictating the overall safety guidelines.
"The construction of the cars is pretty solid," Smith said. "The crash posts on these trains are extremely solid. They are built so solid that the train cars did not crumple in the accident."
The railroad does have to make slight modifications to the train cars so they will be able to maneuver the tight curves at the High Fall of Cheat Mountain. Besides those changes, the train cars are practically original other than slight adjustments to the interiors to allow for modern bathrooms and dinette sets.
Despite the severity of last week's crash, Smith thinks the two damaged cars are reparable.
"Looking at the cars, they are basically straight," Smith said. "I do think they are rebuildable, but we won't know for sure until we get them to Belington and take a closer look."
If the cars are not salvageable, Smith said other cars are available for purchase. In fact, a sister car to one of the ones involved in the accident already is in Belington. Railroad officials had bought the car earlier, and all it needs is sprucing up and modifications so that it can make the Cheat Mountain trip.
Salamander excursions, though, have been canceled for the remainder of the season. Durbin & Greenbrier Valley officials have added additional spots on the Tygart Flyer to accommodate passengers who already had tickets for the longer Cheat Mountain ride.
"We did discontinue the Salamander for the rest of the season," Smith said. "I think that is the wisest thing to do. We need to follow through with the investigation. This type of freak accident happening a second time is almost unimaginable. But, we need to learn from this and make any necessary improvements."
"The trip to the High Falls will be back in service by next spring," Smith added. "This also will not affect any other trips like the Polar Express."
Despite the accident, passengers have not been deterred from riding the rails. Railroad officials were planning on expanding services prior to the accident, including additional Salamander excursions and trips on the Tygart Flyer.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad formed in September 1996 and started running tours in July 1997. The Salamander excursions kicked off in 2001. No other incidents have been reported in the train's history.
"We will keep growing," Smith said. "I don't believe this instance will slow down the rail excursions at all. Everyone loves to ride the train. An awful lot locally depends upon these tourist trains. We've never heard a negative thing and, thus far, this accident has not had a negative impact. We will move on and learn from this accident. You just never know until something like this happens."
- Contact Matthew Burdette at 304-636-2121, ext. 120 or via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at IMT- Burdette.