As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the deadly train wreck in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 5th, 2013, a major fiery train wreck in Ohio this past weekend serves as a reminder of just how potentially dangerous long and heavy trains can be. Add to this the fact that in the last 10 years, the Class One carriers have dramatically increased both the length and tonnage of the average train, while cutting back on maintenance and inspection, and we have a time bomb ticking, just like a decade ago, leading up to the Canadian disaster that destroyed a whole town and took the lives of 47 people. While thousands were and remain evacuated, and property damage to both rail and non-railroad property will no doubt soar into the millions, we dodged a bullet as no rail workers and no trackside residents were killed. This time.
The train, NS 32N, which was built in Madison, IL and headed east to Conway, PA swapped out crews in Decatur, IL. This crew would experience trouble while running their route between Decatur, IL and Peru, IN. In fact, they did not complete their trip to Peru since they outlawed on the federal hours-of-service statute. The train severed a knuckle between two cars at Attica, IN. This occurred while the train was going downhill and while in dynamic braking. Pretty much the only time a train breaks in this scenario is when the train isn’t blocked properly. In order to mitigate in-train forces, railroads prior to PSR would build trains with the heavier cars on the head end and the lighter cars on the rear end. This prevents severe slack run-ins and run-outs throughout the trip and if the train’s emergency brakes are applied, you don’t have heavier cars running into lighter cars which causes jackknifing. This particular train had 40% of it’s weight on the rear 1/3 of the train. Most of this tonnage was made up of loaded tank cars which are very heavy and slosh back and forth when coming to a sudden stop. This sloshing after a stop can continue the pushing of more cars off a track in a jackknifing situation which is what occurred in this Ohio wreck. This block of tank cars was placed directly behind a block of cars that were in the middle of train which were equipped with cushioned draw bars. The draw bars on these cars slide in and out independent of the car body which helps protect the merchandise carried within from damage. These type of draw bars are usually on automobile carriers to prevent the cars/trucks inside from being damaged. Placing cars with these draw bars in the middle of a train creates elasticity. Building a train like this (Head end = locomotives, which are the heaviest part of any train, followed by heavy mixed freight loads, followed by a block of cushioned draw bar cars, followed by a block of heavy tank cars (such as the case with this 32N) is akin to placing two bowling balls on the ends of a rubber band and praying the rubber band doesn’t break.
Video footage has emerged online (see video link below) showing one of the wheels on this train on fire as it passed by the camera. If this footage is authentic, it’s very likely that car caused the derailment. This damaged car apparently was allowed to leave its initial terminal because it wasn’t inspected properly due to car inspectors being laid-off and time allowed per car inspection being dramatically reduced by the industry. If this did indeed occur this way, the train would’ve gone into emergency and the heavy tank cars on the rear end would’ve slammed into the derailed cars causing the 50 cars to pile up off the track and catch fire.
"Precision Scheduled Railroading" is more than likely a major culprit in this incident for the following reasons:
-- Inspection times have been cut resulting in the defective car remaining in the consist.
-- Train was excessively long and heavy… 151 cars, 9300 feet, 18,000 tons.
-- Train was not blocked properly because PSR calls for limited car dwell times in terminals. Blocking a train for proper train handling (placing the majority of weight on the head end and ahead of cushioned draw bars) takes longer so this practice has been mostly eliminated by the rail carriers.