Railroads are one of the safest methods of transportation around, but combine thousands of tons of steel and cargo with the laws of physics and when accidents happen, they can happen in a really big way. Despite their rarity (or maybe in part because of it), the magnitude of a train wreck is sure to capture the eyes of the public and even become the story of legend.
These accidents can occur for a great variety of reasons. Environmental factors, equipment failures and human error top the list of general causes. Bad luck (it is Friday the 13th) generally has nothing to do with it but railroad tales of lucky and unlucky trains, engineers and locomotives abound. More than one “cursed” locomotive has been sold after a wreck simply because nobody wanted it around anymore.
More than superstition, there is a great science around train wrecks. Over the years, the causes of train derailments have been scrutinized and studied in great depth. Each accident is treated as an opportunity to learn and correct problems to prevent a repeat occurrence. The studies can result in changes to equipment design or operating rules or even prompt new legislation.
Signal systems, automatic train stop, “dead man” peddles – even the new ATC control systems are all the result of searching for solutions in technology. From the safety appliances of the 1800s to modern shelf couplers each technological advance has helped to make the trains safer for workers, travelers and the public at large.
It is said that the railroad rule book is written in blood, each one of those rules being the result of an earlier accident. These cover everything from train handling to the proper way to get on and off equipment. Twisted steel and twisted ankles – both can be prevented.
In some cases, rules to prevent recurring train wrecks go beyond the railroad rules and into regulations which govern the entire industry. Hours of service and drug testing requirements are just two examples of modern safety regulations which can trace their origins to disasters.
Sadly, the most common railroad accidents are also among the most easily avoided. Collisions between vehicles and pedestrians and trains at railroad crossings and along the right-of-way seem so easy to prevent and yet they remain a problem despite the best efforts by the railroads, governments and groups like Operation Lifesaver. No matter how well protected the crossings may be, the best defense against these tragedies is an informed public. You can do your part to promote awareness in your community, and practice what you preach when you are out watching trains.
Most derailments are hardly headline worthy. A simple wheel on the ground can usually be corrected with nothing more than a few blocks of wood. The more serious incidents usually occur at speed where the effects are magnified by the mass and momentum of the train.
A sudden stop will send the back of the train crashing into the front as the rate of deceleration exceeds the air brakes’ capacity. This creates the “accordion” effect of cars stacked at right angles to the track or even piled on top of each other. Loads like steel beams and wood poles become missiles. And the twisting, tearing and cutting of metal can go beyond what any freight car engineer could build for. Cars containing hazardous materials are always the first concern.
In earlier years, railroads maintained their own wreck trains. Ready to go at a moment’s notice, these trains were stationed at major yards and could be dispatched quickly to the site of a derailment. A wreck train had priority over every other train on the line. In addition to the “Big Hook” the train would include cars of replacement track and wheels, tools and even bunk and kitchen cars for the wreck crew which would stay on site until the tracks were opened.
Today these duties are normally contracted out to specialized wreck crews which cover entire regions. Large tractors have replaced the wreck cranes and the equipment and crew can normally get there faster by road than rail. Now as before, the priorities remain to secure the scene and any hazardous materials, protect property and lives, and reopen the railroad as soon as possible. Wrecked cars may sit beside the tracks for days or weeks once the railroad is opened as investigators and claims workers sort out the pieces.
Despite the fables and movie story lines, there is nothing glamorous about a train wreck. Each one represents the potential for serious damages and loss of life. Nevertheless, they will continue to have a presence as long as trains continue to battle the elements, human nature and if you will, bad luck.