Trains back in action after ‘Armageddon-like’ derailment, fire and diesel spillage
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
The rumble of trains has finally returned to a section of railway which resembled a scene “almost like Armageddon” in August last year.
Passenger and freight services have begun plying the line near Llangennech, Carmarthenshire, where 520m of new track is the culmination of a major clear-up following a freight train derailment and fire on the night of August 26.
The wrecked train, which was pulling 25 wagons, spilled around 350,000 litres of diesel fuel into an acutely sensitive environment.
Some people living in houses to the derailment site around 700m away were evacuated as a precaution due to the intense fire.
Emergency teams then began mopping up and dispersing as much diesel as they could to prevent it entering the Burry Inlet, which sustains a cockle fishery and has multiple landscape and biodiversity protections.
In total, 30,000 tonnes of contaminated soil has been excavated and removed.
Surveying the new track on a spring-like day on March 8, Stuart Thomas, incident recovery manager for Natural Resources Wales (NRW), said: “You could never have imagined six months ago that this would be looking the way it is after that disaster movie-type scene from back in August.
“It was utter devastation – wreckage, twisted tracks and a lot of oil.”
Bill Kelly, Network Rail route director for Wales, said: “It looked almost like Armageddon in those first few hours.
“The emergency services responded so magnificently and did a remarkable job getting the fire under control, which allowed us on site quickly to limit the damage.”
Mr Kelly said it was largest environmental recovery operation Network Rail has ever been involved in.
The operation involved other organisations including Carmarthenshire and Swansea councils, Public Health Wales and the Food Standards Agency.
Around 50m from the track is a lagoon and reed beds which filter contaminated water from nearby mine workings.
Mr Thomas said this treatment system was completed in 2002 to address historic water directive failures in the Burry Inlet.
The presence of the Morlais treatment works so close to the damaged area track was something the recovery and repair teams had to be mindful of.
Mr Kelly said: “The place is laced with old mine works – that was a challenge for us.
“We brought in specialists, but it didn’t overly complicate things.”
Some diesel spilled into the Burry Inlet fishery, and its cockle beds were closed for seven weeks as a precaution as sampling took place to identify tell-tale signs of hydrocarbon pollution.
“All the results which came back were within the public health limits,” said Mr Thomas.
Monitoring has continued since and will be taken up by NRW teams as part of their regular Burry Inlet work.
The inlet has national and international designations, recognising its value for overwintering birds, among other things.
No-one was hurt in the incident, which the Rail Accident Investigation Branch has been investigating. It found that a set of wheels of the DB Cargo-operated train became worn down due to the application of brakes and came off the tracks at a junction.
Mr Kelly, who said the investigation was ongoing, confirmed that Network Rail had spent more than £5 million on the recovery and repair phase.
At one point in January this year, he said the weather was so bad that the site was underwater for seven days.
The section of line is now open to Heart of Wales services, although these are limited due to coronavirus restrictions. Repairs to another section of the Heart of Wales rail line – resulting in replacement bus services from Llanwrtyd Wells northwards – are due to be completed in around two weeks’ time.
Llanelli MS Lee Waters welcomed the reopening of the railway track.
“It is great to have this railway line back up and running again for passengers as we prepare to reopen the economy in time for Easter and summer,” he said.
Nia Griffith, Llanelli MP, added: “I would like to say a huge thank you to all involved for being out in all weathers throughout the winter months to get this work done.”