Freight Car Friday – Train Wrecks

13 09 2013

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.


The night of December 27, 2010 a strong gust of wind literally blew a doublstack train off the tracks on the famous Rockville Bridge. The following morning, workers were nearly finished with the cleanup on this critical rail corridor. Two empty containers can be seen in the icy waters below.

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.


Rockville has seen more than one derailment in its 111 year history. Just yards from the crew working on the containers, a large tan patch can still be seen from where the bridge gave way under a loaded coal train in 1997. Fortunately no one was hurt in either accident.

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.

Operation Lifesaver

One of several locomotives painted by Norfolk Southern to promote crossing safety is seen switching, appropriately enough, around a busy railroad crossing.

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.

damaged car

This covered hopper has clearly been involved in a derailment. Unable to be moved on its own wheels it arrived at UTLX’s repair facility aboard a flatcar.

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.

big hook

They call it the “Big Hook” for a reason! Volunteers at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum are dwarfed by their 250 ton wreck crane.

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.


Freight Car Friday – The Wreck Train

9 03 2012

It is an unfortunate but very real part of railroading – the derailment. Most derailments are very minor and- can be corrected with minimal equipment. Often a few blocks of wood or a rerail frog are enough to pull an errant wheel back up onto the rails. But when things go wrong in a big way, it’s time to bring in the “Big Hook.”

The Wreck Crane

NYC crane

The wreck crane was an incredibly versatile and important tool, kept ready to go at a moment's notice.

The muscle of any wreck train is the crane. Cranes used in wreck clean-up came in several sizes. 125 and 250 ton capacities were the most common. Earlier cranes were steam powered. Boilers needed to be maintained in ready order to be used at a moments notice. Later, cranes were diesel powered. The crane and the rest of the train which supported it were kept on a special track in the yard, usually near the engine or car shops. The crane could also be used for other assignments besides wreck clean up of course. They were often used within their assigned yards for correcting small derailments or work around the shops.

Conrail crane

A former Conrail 250 ton crane is preserved and operable at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona.

Although many cranes had powered axles that could be used to position the machine at the lifting site, another locomotive was used to get the train there. Since an emergency took priority over everything else, railroads grabbed the first locomotive available to power the train. The wreck train would also likely have running priority over any other train on the mainline. The crane itself was usually considered a restricted load and had to travel at certain speeds. Greater speed was safely possible with the boom of the crane trailing, so whenever possible, the train would be turned at the yard to travel in that orientation.

Once on site, the crane and other cars would be positioned so that the crane could best approach the wreck. It was not uncommon for multiple wreck trains to approach the site from different directions. Outriggers on the frame of the crane were deployed for stability as the crane boom swiveled off of center. A skilled crew used the cranes many hooks and attachments lift and move errant railcars and locomotives. No two wrecks are the same, so the knowledge of the crew was critical in making the situation better, not worse.

CP Rail crane

Lionel's TMCC equipped crane adds lots of action to your layout. In addition to the crane, an idler or crane tender carried supplies and tools.

Safety always came first on the wreck site. Getting the railroad open for traffic was next on the priority list. Often, the crane would be used to clear cars and debris away from the track quickly. While doing its work, a track gang would be busy laying new rail. The crane could then gradually work in towards the center of the wreck. Once the railroad was open, the wreck train would retreat to a siding until the traffic backlog passed. Then cleanup and right-of-way improvements could continue at a more moderate pace with minor disruptions to service schedules. Of course through all of this, inspectors would be working to determine what went wrong in hopes of preventing a future occurance.

Support Cars

The wreck crane was the star of the show, but it couldn’t do its work without a strong supporting cast.  A wreck train is usually equipped with many additional cars to carry the needed tools and parts to do the job. Empty cars to haul away damaged equipment or scrap may also be included, or could arrive later in the clean up process.

wheel load

Support cars with replacement wheels, trucks and other supplies got trains moving again quickly.

The first car in the lineup, positioned next to the crane, was the crane tender. This car performed many functions. First, it was an idler car to provide clearance beneath the crane boom. This tender also carried additional blocking, hoists, heavy cables and tools needed within reach of the crane. Some had enclosed compartments as well that carried more tools and work space. The tender was usually an older piece of equipment readapted for this use. Flat cars and gondolas were common, but box cars and even baggage cars have been used. In the days of steam-powered derecks, an actual tender was also often carried to fuel the crane. These were usually recycled from retired locomotives.

Additional flatcars would accompany the train carrying spare trucks and wheels as well as rail and ties and even pre-made panel track sections. A tool car also came along with smaller parts along with tools and equipment. Older box and baggage cars were common conversions.

Crew Quarters

bunk car

Crew quarters were often made from older cars and offered very basic accomodations.

In addition to transporting the equipment and supplies, the wreck train also had to have a place for the workers. On short trips, an old coach might suffice. For longer projects, bunk cars would be brought to the site along with kitchen, dining, office and sometimes even a recreational car to support the men. Like the other cars in a wreck train, recycled revenue equipment was often used. We’ll take a closer look at these in another blog. These mobile quarters were usually spotted on a nearby siding, preferably with access to a fresh water and food supplies.

A wreck train can be an exciting addition to any model railroad. Lionel and American Flyer cranes are a natural start. And almost anything goes for supporting cars. It’s a great way to use some equipment from an older era.