On July 9, 2004, a Union Pacific unit coal train with three locomotives and a consist of 136 cars derailed on an overpass over Interstate 57 near mile marker 71 between the towns of Benton and West City in Illinois. The train, on its way between East St. Louis, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky was using Canadian National/Illinois Central track and many news outlets have erroneously reported that it was a CN/IC train. The derailment dumped eight train cars carrying a total of 800 tons of coal onto I-57. Though the falling rail cars and coal narrowly missed several vehicles below, reports are that there was only one relatively minor injury. The accident closed the highway in both directions between Benton and West Frankfort—about six miles to the south.
I found out about the incident late in the morning and decided I that I needed to travel the 160 miles south to Benton from Urbana to check out this accident. Variable message signs along the highway beginning at exit 96 on I-57 warned of the highways closure. I decided it would be best not to contribute to the traffic along the detour route (and who wants to sit in a traffic jam anyway), so I planned a course I thought would avoid the diverted traffic. I planned to exit onto Illinois 154 at exit 77 and take Illinois 37 and then local back roads to a railroad crossing just to the west of the railroad overpass; however, just south of exit 83 I began to encounter stopped traffic. So I turned around on the interstate—there was almost no northbound traffic at this point—and exited the highway at exit 83.
It turned out that southbound traffic was being diverted from the I-57 at exit 77—one exit north of the interchange nearest interchange to the accident. From exit 83, I made my way over to Illinois 37 and took back roads through the northern extremes of Benton and West City over to the railroad as I had originally planned. Despite the fact that traffic was being diverted from I-57 to part of Illinois 37, I encountered only very light traffic—aside from the tail end of a massive traffic jam leading into downtown Benton.
I had spotted the railroad crossing nearest the overpass on a map of the area. When I arrived at the crossing, I found it to be located in a rail yard storing hundreds of empty coal carrying rail cars. A Union Pacific locomotive was also in the yard; it appeared to be pulling cars from the tail end of the train that had derailed. The overpass over I-57, along with several derailed cars, was clearly visible from the crossing. Dozens of CN/IC employees and several pieces of heavy equipment were operating in the area. I spoke briefly to a local teenager who had ridden his bicycle to the crossing; we walked along the rails about a quarter of the way to the overpass before deciding we’d better not go much further.
After spending a few minutes at this crossing, I traveled to a street overpass over I-57 that was about a quarter of a mile north of the railroad overpass. The bridge was crowded with onlookers watching work on the highway below. Crews were working to remove the coal from the highway and load it on to waiting coal trucks. Vans from several television stations were parked on the highway along with a number of emergency vehicles and various other vehicles. From the bridge, I walked down a local street along the interstate to get closer to the bridge.
After awhile, I returned to the crossing that had been my original destination. By this time, a truck carrying two forty foot sections of railroad track had arrived. I found the driver and spoke to him for sometime. He had brought the load in from a yard in St. Louis. It was now nearly 7:00pm; he said that the railroad had asked him to be there by 6:00pm and now he was getting paid overtime.
I stayed in the area of the overpass for a few more hours waiting to see how the track was to be removed from this flatbed truck. In the meantime, CN/IC worked had positioned two derailed cars back onto the track, and the Union Pacific locomotive that had been in the yard pulled those and several other cars out of the area, clearing the main track into the area. Finally, around 9:30pm a railroad crane pulling a flat car and a short equipment train entered the area. There were some complications—power lines blocked the area the crane operator had originally planned to use and the truck driver had some trouble finding a way to position his trailer on the tracks; however, by 10:15pm the crane had lifted the two track sections onto it flat car.
After this, I left for Urbana. I figured that operation was probably the most interesting operation I could see up close. At exit 71, I found the local police still blocking the south bound entrance to the I-57; however, the northbound ramps were open. I-57 between exits 71 and 77 was a dark and desolate highway. The southbound lanes were still closed at exit 77, so the only cars I encountered were two northbound vehicles. Traffic that had been diverted along Illinois 37 re-entered the northbound lanes at exit 77. The local news had been reporting that the intent was to reopen the highway by midnight.
On the way back to Urbana, a large thunderstorm far to the north of I-70 provided a spectacular late show. I finally encountered the rain associated with this storm at exit 190; however, I had been seeing the lightning from the storm ever since I left Benton—120 highway miles to the south. Another somewhat momentous event occurred on the drive back: just short of the northbound rest area on I-57 at mile marker 166, my car reached 100,000 miles. When I took possession of the car back on April 21, 2001 it had a mere 120 miles on it. I am planning on it lasting at least another 100,000 miles.
More information on the derailment: