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timing is everything. tick … tick … tick …

By enelson
Tuesday, January 16th, 2007 at 12:55 pm in Safety, Security.

 AP photo

Kentucky chemical tanker train fire

Normally a post-peak commuter, I had to rush out and get on the train at dawn this morning so I could be seated with my laptop and phone in time to participate in a Federal Railroad Administration call-in press conference at 7:30 a.m., Pacific time.

I was sure I was the only participant actually riding the rails for this, the announcement of a partnership to develop a more crash-worthy chemical rail tanker. The partners included Dow Chemical, Union Pacific Railroad and Union Tank Car Company (no relation), which makes and leases tankers.

After all the introductions were made, FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman noted that some of the chemical tankers in question had derailed in Kentucky this morning. I took a long, deep breath.

It wasn’t until later, when I summoned all the wireless capability I had handy, that I found out some of the details:

  • The wreck, in the southern suburbs of Louisville, happened about 20 minutes before I smacked down my alarm clock this morning. Gotta remember to rig the clock radio to play news.
  • The derailment set several chemical cars ablaze. Authorities say a chemical called cyclohexane is what’s burning, and other chemicals such as butadiene and highly explosive propane are among the chemicals the train was hauling.
  • Authorities evacuated a mile radius around the site, closed 20 miles of Interstate 65 and rerouted air traffic because of danger of toxic fumes, explosion and smoke.
  • As of this writing, authorities announced they would allow the thing to burn itself out.

FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman said it was “certainly very discouraging” that the accident happened this morning. “It certainly dampens some excitement that you have when you think you’ve got a breakthrough,” such as the partnership to build a sturdier tank car.

So, there it is. The need for safer tanker cars, in living color. Think about that next time you’re on a commuter train passing all of those rows of tankers parked on the next track.

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7 Responses to “timing is everything. tick … tick … tick …”

  1. Michael Krueger Says:

    Although it’s hard to argue against the development of safer tanker cars, this post appears to be another example of the Federal Railroad Administration’s focus on accident survivability rather than on accident prevention. This is explained very nicely in the article “How the FRA is Regulating Passenger Rail Out of Existence,” which appears on (of all places) the East Bay Bicycle Coalition’s Web site:

    What if the FAA required that jet aircraft be able to survive crashes into the ground?

    Or if the FHA said automobiles had to survive any head-on crash at 60 mph into a tractor trailer without deformation?

    Even if such vehicles could be engineered, they would be far too costly to operate. But for passenger trains, that is precisely what the FRA has been doing.

    The FRA’s approach to safety is analogous to purchasing an SUV in hopes of increasing one’s chances of surviving a crash. Although it does put the most basic laws of physics on one’s side, such a choice does nothing to reduce one’s chance of having an accident in the first place, and it has dire consequences for the environment and for other road users.

    The FRA’s backward-looking regulations have hobbled efforts to modernize and expand rail service in this country. A focus on accident prevention rather than survivability has enabled Europe and Japan to build faster, more efficient, and less expensive systems without compromising safety:

    European and Japanese rail operators believe the best way to survive a train accident is to simply not have one in the first place. Their design philosophy is to rely on modern signaling and proper maintenance to prevent collisions and derailments.

    I have nothing against developing safer tanker cars, as long as this is not a distraction from the more important issues of preventing crashes in the first place. Unfortunately, our misplaced regulatory focus is one of the main reasons our rail projects cost more and perform worse than those we admire in Europe in Japan.

  2. South Bay Resident Says:

    I hate to defend the FRA, because their regulations for passenger railcars, specifically the buff strength requirement, are just plain stupid. However, I think that the regulation of freight rail in the U.S. is excellent. The U.S. is one of the few countries where freight rail is profitable and growing in market share. Implementing modern signaling on many freight lines would be so costly as to threaten this. On most of the U.S. rail network, accident survivability seems the best approach. However, in areas with heavy passenger traffic, such as Caltrain’s line on the peninsula which have good signaling, there is no good reason not to allow the weaker European equipment which is drastically cheaper and offers much better performance.

  3. Reedman Says:

    Caltrain is an interesting case study for “safety” statistics.
    13 people died on Caltrain tracks in 2006.
    20 people died on Caltrain tracks in 1995.
    On a ‘deaths per mile’ basis, there isn’t a road in California that
    comes close to this level of carnage.
    Railroads can be considered both
    ‘very safe’ or ‘very deadly’ depending on whether you are talking about
    rail passengers or ‘people on railroad property’. A more nuanced assessment
    could say that use of railroads transfers the mortality risk away
    from users and onto the general public.

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Perhaps not so much the general public as Darwin Award contestants.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, that’s harsh!

    The only type of roadway that’s comparable to Caltrain is a freeway, because vehicles regularly travel close to 80 mph, the top speed of normal American commuter trains. Why don’t people cross freeways and get hit a the same rate?

    I’ll hazard a guess here that there are three main reasons: One, pedestrians are more intimidated by freeways. Cars are nearly always in sight, and often crossing is like threading a needle very quickly. Trains move along a much narrower right-of-way, and often accidental death scenarios begin with someone not seeing or hearing the oncoming train.

    Reason number two, I believe, is that cars, and even big trucks, are able to stop faster and even swerve to avoid hitting people.

    Reason three is that the freeway isn’t as attractive to potential suicides. Trains are big and heavy, they can’t stop fast enough and they were pegged by Freud as a dream-signal of death. Trains are also a little like the Golden Gate Bridge. You get more attention when you get hit by a train than you do when you’re killed in what the police call a car v. ped “accident.”

  6. Michael Krueger Says:

    Capricious Commuter missed the most obvious reason trains are more attractive to suicides than roadways: Trains cannot swerve to miss a person on the tracks. Even a large truck with a long stopping distance can still swerve.

    The fact that rail vehicles don’t stray from their tracks actually makes them safer for pedestrians who are paying even the slightest attention. For example, pedestrians can coexist comfortably and safely with streetcars in plazas and pedestrian malls, secure in the knowledge that the trains will follow predictable paths.

    Mr. De Benedictis’ comment is indeed harsh but perhaps not far off the mark. Consider this excerpt from the extensively researched scholarly article “Trespassing on the Railroad,” written in 2005 by Northwestern University economist Ian Savage:

    By far the largest group of trespassers casualties, probably representing about half of all casualties, are males in their 20s and 30s who are socializing or loitering on or near the tracks. From what we know from the CDC studies, many of these trespassers are under the influence of alcohol, have a history of alcohol abuse, are unmarried, and have a low level of educational attainment. It would be probably fair to say that these persons probably engage in risky behaviors of many types in addition to trespassing on the railroad. Consequently, the most productive public policy responses would probably fall into the realm of public health, rather than being specific to the railroad.

  7. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Many of the other casualties are people who go around gates and ignore other warning signals or other signs that a train is coming.

    It is possible to be killed by a train while behaving safely. My grandfather was killed while waiting in a station when he was hit by something hanging off a train. But such accidents are far rarer than those where the victim is at fault, especially now, 80 years later.

    I have been at Jack London Square with a freight train stopped, blocking traffic, and I have seen pedestrians climb over the train to save a minute or two. They do not consider number of minutes you can lose compared to the number of minutes you save, and most especially the quality of those minutes.

    But perhaps that is the paradigm for all our transportation these days. We are not considering the cost of risking the habitability of the world compared to the risk of traveling in ecologically, economically, socially, and sustainably responsible ways. We are living lives of unimaginable ease at the risk of our children, or our children’s children not being able to live at all. We are all Darwin Award candidates.

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