Monday, February 27, 2023

That train derailment story you've heard about

Happy belated b'day - Dad as I like to remember him
Here in the Buckeye State, we've been hearing about the train derailment in East Palestine for weeks now.  Long and short, someone goofed.  It is a story because following the derailment, it was stated that no hazardous chemicals were present.  So they came in an initiated a burn to eliminate the spillage. Problem?  Obviously there were hazardous materials, and now they're - everywhere. 

I'll let the lawyers and the politicians work it out.  For me, I can't figure out how they got it so wrong.  As you all know, my dad was a railroad engineer.  I used to know quite a lot about about trains since they're trains.  And every kid (and many adults) loves trains.  Even if he didn't 'live the train culture' (it was merely a job to him), he would always tell me what I wanted to know about the railroad.  And I listened when he talked to mom.  A few times over the years he let me ride with him on the engine (and once on a caboose - fun stuff!  Think an RV on rails).  When I was in college, he even let me try my hand with running one, albeit in a small local train yard at about 5mph and no cars attached.  

Now, trains are actually a delicate thing.  Yes, they're big and scary.  But the whole thing is a masterclass in physics.  For instance, the balance of wheels on rails is a precarious one.  Almost no train in the history of trains ever derailed because it hit something like a car or truck.  The actual collision is not the problem.  The reason why you'll see a derailment connected to a crossing accident is that a piece of the torn up vehicle became wedged between the wheels and rail, bending the rail out, and leading to the cars or engines jumping the track. 

Like flying, starting and stopping is the most dangerous part.  Start the train wrong, and you could tear a car in half.  Stop it wrong and some of the cars may not get the memo in time, resulting in a pile up.  And of course, derailments are always a concern, from start to finish and in between.  

I've heard on the news about some overheated bearings causing the derailment.  That could be.  Though how they missed it I don't know.  That's called a hot box, and railroads have 'hot box detectors' up and down the lines.  That was one of the more irksome parts of the job IIRC.  It wasn't unusual for a detector to trip even if there was nothing there.  Nonetheless, each time it did, the train had to stop and someone (the engineer being the boss of the train crew, it usually wasn't my dad) had to walk the length of the train to see what happened.  

That's often how things on the railroad work, by the way.  If there is a problem with the detector, it triggers.  Like railroad crossing lights, they're set to go off if there are any problems.  So even if there was a problem with this detector, it should have triggered.  I'd think the technology is even more advanced now then back in the day.

So no clue how that could cause the derailment unless someone messed up royally somewhere.  

As for the lack of knowledge about the cargo, that's unbelievable.  Each train car my dad hauled was on a list containing all the needed specs.  Some trains were special trains made up for specific cargos.  The ones with anything more dangerous than sponges had special information attached.  On the lines through Ohio my dad worked on, one of the trains was affectionally called 'The Bomb.'  About 100 of 150 cars or so of explosive and hazardous liquids. Not only were the materials an issue, but hauling them wasn't easy.  Tank cars in general were tough to control.  If you've ever carried a large container of liquid that began sloshing back and forth, you know why.  Imagine a 30 ton car with tens of thousands of gallons that begin sloshing back and forth if not controlled.  Then imagine dozens of such cars sloshing at different rates.  

That's why the safety protocols around such loads were Himalayan in scope.  And not just the train crew, but the various railroad yards and stations, and all locations the train would travel through were made aware.

How with all of that the response was 'Gee, we didn't think there were hazardous chemicals' just doesn't sound real. What actually happened and why I don't know.  But that's why this is becoming a news story even on international news.  Mixed with continuing 'nothing to see here folks' in the face of citizens developing all manner of ailments, the whole thing stinks to high heaven. 

Oh, and one shout out.  Do engineers and train crews a favor and don't try to beat trains at railroad crossings.  It's stressful for them since there's little they can do but watch.  Even though my dad had learned how to mitigate damage at crossings, if someone darted in front of him at the last, he couldn't do anything.  Remember, rule of thumb: It usually takes the length of the train to stop, and some trains can be over a mile long.  All accidents were stressful, even though he was seldom in danger (gasoline tank trucks being an exception, and the bogeyman of railroad engine crews).  When the accidents were fatalities, it always weighed on him.   The worst I recall was a car with four women leaving a party who at the last minute darted around the crossing gates. All four were killed instantly.  It was the only time I remember Dad having to take time off from work.  So next time, just wait a couple minutes.  Nothing is so important as to not make it to where you're going. 

Results are almost always the same

BTW, just for fun, the worst cargo to haul per my dad?  Plastic pellets.  That's because there was no air between those things and it was 100% dead weight, to the tune of hundreds of tons.  That's a car that needed TLC or you could have those torn up derailed trains pretty fast. 


  1. Thanks for this, Dave. I've been curious about your input given you are an Ohio-ian and your dad's work. This was a good and informative post.

    I got this link from someone, apparently it is like the preliminary report on the incident. Seems like a freak, 1 in a million accident that idiots quickly made worse.

    So one question I've always had.... how do you clean up a derailment? Like if a train car is off the track and on its side in the middle of nowhere, what do they do?

    1. It may have been a freak one in a million that the bearings, between detectors, would just flame up. But like most machinery, issues like that are usually a slow burn. For instance, if you've ever been at a crossing and listened when a train went by, you've probably heard something. The train will be going making its usual noise, then you'll suddenly hear a noise rise and fall, a sort of chachunk, Chachunk, CHACHUNK, Chachunk, and so on. That means one of the wheels is flattening. It can be a tiny bit - size of a penny - but it's starting. And if it goes on, eventually it will cause a problem. Most issues are like that, with ample time to catch them. But it could be, as you say, a one in a million.

      As for cleaning up, railroads have their departments for such things. Rail maintenance, repair, salvage, etc. Large crane cars - imagine tow trucks for trains - can come in. Usually they'll repair the rails first. Then those come in and can actually haul up the cars and engines (though larger engines may take a few such cars). They can also work with the state agencies which can also supply materials.

  2. I grew up in a small Illinois town along what was then the Rock Island Railroad line. Twice that I can remember (in the 1970s) there were derailments just a few blocks from our house, but they were empty boxcars not carrying anything hazardous. In one instance it was rumored that the derailed cars were carrying beer so of course every mischievous teen in town flocked to the wreck hoping to find some free hooch....


    1. Heh. I can imagine that would draw the onlookers. :)

  3. Your father had a much better haircut than you do.


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