The southern end of the Heart of Wales line has reopened through Llangennech, scene of an environmental disaster as a freight train derailed and spilled 350,000 litres of diesel fuel onto the surrounding area on 26 August 2020.
The spillage, and the resultant fire, triggered one of the biggest environmental recovery efforts Network Rail has ever undertaken. The area contained wildlife conservation areas and waterways, and there was major concern as to the damage that the spillage would cause.
Ground teams from Network Rail, Natural Resources Wales, environmental emergency-response specialist Adler and Allan and partner agencies have put in a total 37,500 hours of work since the incident to protect the local environment, recover the huge wagons from site and repair a large stretch of damaged railway.
In total, 30,000 tonnes of contaminated soil have been excavated from 150 metres of railway, down to a depth of two metres over a strip 20 metres wide. That soil has been replaced with new, clean material from quarries in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, with the fuel-soaked soil taken to a licensed waste management facility in Merthyr.
Once the bulk of the recovery work was completed, Network Rail installed around 530 metres of new track before reinstating the signalling that had been damaged in the fire.
As a result, passenger and freight services are back up and running on the railway line through Llangennech, although Transport for Wales is currently operating a reduced timetable.
Network Rail route director for Wales Bill Kelly said: “I am delighted that we have reached the final stages of our work to reinstate the railway following one of the biggest environmental recovery operations Network Rail has ever been involved with.
“It is thanks to our quick-thinking frontline teams, along with our partner agencies, that the fuel spill was able to be contained so swiftly, allowing us to prevent what could have been a total environmental disaster.
“Our teams have worked non-stop for the past six months and their dedication has paid off.
“We can confidently say the measures we have taken will protect the local environment for generations to come.”
Natural Resources Wales, which compared the scale of the incident to the Sea Empress disaster of 1996, will continue to monitor the shellfish and wider environment over the coming months. Martyn Evans, chairman of its Recovery Coordination Group, added: “The re-opening of the railway line at Llangennech is a huge milestone in what has been a complex, challenging and ultimately successful recovery operation at a location of international environmental significance, coordinated by Natural Resources Wales.
“A wide range of partners have shown brilliant teamwork in working together to overcome many challenges and reduce these impacts through a Recovery Coordination and Tactical Group operating within the framework of the Dyfed Powys Local Resilience Forum.
“There have been far-reaching impacts on the environment – on land and in the sea, the community of Llangennech, local businesses, particularly the shellfisheries, tourism and industry. Happily, most of these impacts have now been overcome and activities restored, although our work and support for some of these groups is on-going.”
Monitoring of the site and wider environment has been ongoing to ensure the safety of shellfish in the local waterways. Latest laboratory results from the analysis of cockles and mussels for environmental contaminants, including oil, indicate levels continue to be well within regulatory limits.
Although many trees were burnt or destroyed on the land adjacent to the railway during in the fire, the Coal Authority has put plans in place to replant trees on its land and to restore the expanse of forest that was lost.