A man was rushed to a hospital Thursday night following a collision with a North Shore Scenic Railroad train carrying 115 passengers bound for Two Harbors.
The driver, 67-year-old Kurt Vanhala of Two Harbors, "suffered substantial injuries from the crash," a St. Louis County Sheriff's Office news release said late Thursday. Vanhala was taken to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth and his condition was unknown following admittance.
Alcohol was believed to be a factor, the Sheriff's Office said, as Vanhala "failed to yield to the train, causing it to crash into the side of his vehicle as he drove through the railroad crossing."
The collision occurred near the intersection of Old North Shore Road and McQuade Road in Lakewood Township, where the railroad tracks run parallel to Old North Shore. The driver was traveling north on McQuade. During the collision, the train engine impacted with the driver's door on a late-model, two-door hatchback sending it ricocheting into trees down a slope off the tracks.
Ken Buehler, executive director of the railroad, arrived at the scene of the crash, which occurred around 7 p.m. and drew a large response from sheriff's deputies, Lakewood and Clifton fire departments, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, Mayo Clinic Ambulance, and the Minnesota State Patrol.
"We're fortunate nobody on board the train was injured," Buehler said. "We're concerned about the condition of the driver of the vehicle."
The Sheriff's Office confirmed there were no injuries aboard the train.
Buehler spoke with passengers on board, who could be seen from outside waiting patiently in their seats during what amounted to a half-hour delay. He described the passenger load as 67 for the popular pizza train and 48 for a separate murder-mystery car. The train was not damaged by the crash and carried on to an abbreviated evening tour, heading to French River before returning to the Depot in downtown Duluth.
A 62-year-old male train passenger from Duluth told the News Tribune that passengers didn't feel the impact of the collision, only realizing something happened when the train braked to a stop. He declined to share his name and the train was quickly buttoned-up by railroad staff as the scene materialized, denying further access to passengers.
Buehler said an initial investigation by himself and two other top Scenic Railroad officials found that the train was traveling at 29 mph. The engineer began furiously blowing the train whistle as he saw the approaching car and how it wasn't slowing down near the intersection. The railroad intersection is controlled by stop signs on either side of the tracks.
The engineer, one of the all-volunteer crew operating the train, pulled the emergency brake, "dropping all air from the train," Buehler said, describing a braking maneuver that can be abrupt. Nobody aboard the train fell during the incident, Buehler said.
A debriefing with the engineer and operating staff found them cleared to proceed with the train, Buehler said.
"The lesson here is to always obey the stop sign," Buehler said, pointing out how the train stopped some 400-500 feet beyond the intersection, an indication of the distance trains require even to brake suddenly.
"Emergency 911 was called before the train came to a complete stop," Buehler said.
The crash will need to be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, he confirmed.