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Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

Posted July 23, 2014 1:18 PM by HUSH

There are a few mechanical processes that truly leave me awe-inspired.

The first of note is when I'm on an airplane; I look out over the wings to see them shake and bend with every boundary separation, and I think "Damn that's cool." To most people it's nerve-racking; to me, it's a telltale sign that an engineer somewhere did their job right, and it makes me feel safe.

There is also something about a locomotive that brings out my inner Tim Taylor (insert customary Tool Time grunt here). The hiss, the horn, the effortless rumble of the turbine as the train glides past. All of these remind me of the remarkable mechanical achievements taken for granted day-in and day-out. I'm fortunate enough to see one of these sublime freight trains about once a week, as a local rail network intersects my daily dog walk.

However, what typically follows these freight trains is unsightly, and depending on your opinion, also an enormous risk: dozens of DOT-111s. While the name may not conjure a depiction or inherent hazards, let me remind you of a news event from one year ago.

On July 5, a freight train, designated MMA 2, that was hauling 72 DOT-111s filled with crude oil was parked on the main track 7 miles outside Lac-Mégnatic, Quebec. The engineer on the train did not break protocol once he left the train unattended to sleep at his overnight accommodations, with one of the locomotives still on to maintain a brake. Passing motorists later saw sparks coming from the locomotive exhaust, and called local officials to report the distressed train. First responders secured the site, and a maintenance crew was dispatched to turn off the misfiring locomotive.

But that locomotive was essential to maintain pressure in the air brakes lines, and once the reservoir was depleted, the train began an uncontrolled roll towards Lac-Mégnatic, Quebec. Sixty-three of the 72 DOT-111s jumped the track at six times the posted speed limit. The result was a "tsunami of fire" that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings.

Currently, several American cities are evaluating the true hazards of these tank cars. Washington and British Columbia are closely monitoring their rail-bound crude oil shipments to determine what can be done to prevent another tragedy. Residents of Maine, a thoroughfare for crude oil tankers, have protested further shipments through the state. Albany, N.Y, pictured right, is debating how to let the oil industry expand, without endangering local residents.

Unfortunately, transporting oil through populated areas isn't a black-and-white issue. Fracking and oil sands mining means that oil produced in landlocked areas needs to be transported to a coastal refining facility. Many midstream facilities exist along to way to transport oil between tankers or cars between trains. Other options, such as pipelines, are often more controversial than current road- or rail-hauling practices.

In the case of the Lac-Mégnatic disaster, neither the company nor federal overseers had any qualms about leaving a train loaded with dangerous materials unattended nor running overnight; idle reduction is a common practice in many industries. This practice has since changed for trains carrying hazardous materials-an engineer is required to be present at all times.

Also to be considered is the deteriorating shape of many rail lines around the continent. The curve where MMA 2 jumped the tracked was so badly maintained that trains were supposed to proceed at 10 miles per hour.

The DOT-111 is also inadequate to carry its full 35,000 gallon capacity. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada have concluded that DOT-111s have an unusually high incidence of failure. Not only is the steel too thin to withstand almost any derailment, but the ends of the reservoir or very susceptible to couplers that can shear between cars. Several valves on top of the cars are also too vulnerable. While both the U.S. and Canada has passed regulations requiring more robust tank construction, the petroleum industry has lobbied hard to continue using these outdated and dangerous models.

Unfortunately, DOT-111s continue to be used, and also continue to present a hazard. Since the Lac-Mégnatic disaster, several more spills or explosions have occurred.

What do we tell the communities who witness these tankers roll through-sometimes hundreds a day-on rail lines more than 40 years old?

Resources

Wikipedia: Lac-Megnatic derailment; DOT-111 tank car

Central Maine: Banning unsafe rail cars...

BDN Maine: CN to phase out...

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#1

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/23/2014 11:17 PM

"What do we tell the communities who witness these tankers roll through-sometimes hundreds a day-on rail lines more than 40 years old?" Vote for politicians who will write good laws and enforce their provisions. You know who they are. The Bakken crude as extracted from the ground is also heavily mixed with volatile gases which are supposed to be removed before transport, but of course, that costs money and time. Betcha there aren't enough inspectors, and the corporate masters give a nod and a wink.

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#12
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 5:53 PM

Vote for politicians who will write good laws and enforce their provisions.

That is not consistent with "small government," or a government that "lets the free market work," "encourages competition" and doesn't "kill jobs."

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#15
In reply to #12

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/25/2014 2:34 PM

So that pretty much means the GOP isn't a good choice for leadership, since those four points are things the Republicans like to proclaim during the election cycles.

Depending on the health of the economy (and the amount of Corporate-sponsored-in-secret SuperPAC money they've received lately), the Dems can also start claiming support for up to three of those points.

Can't vote the GOP into power, can't vote the Dems into power. *sigh* Where's Guy Fawkes when we REALLY need him?

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#2

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/23/2014 11:36 PM

"....the effortless rumble of the turbine..."

.

...the what?

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#3

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 1:11 AM

Something phony about this article. When did they change air brakes to release when the pressure is off? Every air brake I know uses air pressure to release brakes not engage them.

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#4
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 3:40 AM

That was my thoughts too, but it appears that we are wrong (from a short reading of some Wiki articles only!) and that pressure is nowadays needed to put brakes on!!!

Thats a walk backwards in safety....and appears to me to be a real failure in thinking and safety!!!

No matter that in the case concerned the engineer who left a train with a badly smoking engine motor (that later turned out to be a piston failure) is to my mind the "cause"!

On a stretch of line accessible by the public, doors unlocked.....

40 odd people died because of single senseless driver working!!!

Surely he could have left TWO locomotives with engines running and supplying pressure?

It appears that even though all the handbrakes available were on, they were not enough to hold the train after pressure dropped......

The Rail company sent an engineer unfamiliar with engine brakes. How clever.....

Its laughable at best, a "comedy of errors!" is simply not enough......

This sort of backs up the general consensus of US opinion about Canada.......

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#6
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 10:56 AM

Who decided that you needed pressure to MAINTAIN brakes on a train?

The old/'correct' system of using pressure to RELEASE brakes was so that if the train broke up, the cars would all STOP. That also means that a car left alone at a railyard would just sit where it was put.

Changing it so an 'unpowered,' unconnected car can roll freely is tanamount to removing the parking brake from all the cars on the highways and neighborhoods.

Just thinking about this is 'angrying up' the blood. Whoever came up with that idea for train brakes needs to be slapped until he regains his senses, then continued to be slapped until his head separates from his shoulders. Some cases of stupidity, when allowed to progress as far as this one did, are Unforgivable.

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#7
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 10:58 AM

Problem with Canadians, eh? I think if you check on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic it will turn out to be a USA railroad extending into Canada.

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#8
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 12:00 PM

So it is a combined operation of both countries.......That still does not impress me personally....

I don't know if the brakes on European trains are as unsafe as those on that side of the Atlantic, but I hope not!!!

Maybe someone here with better knowledge can comment.....

I was under the maybe completely wrong impression that they all worked with a vacuum.....fail safe.

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#9
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 1:25 PM

That's funny - almost all trains world wide use the Westinghouse air brake principle, invented in the late 1860's right here in the USA. There is a triple valve and a reservoir on each car. Failure of main line pressure sets the brakes through the pressure in the reservoir. Considered fail safe, however nothing is ever fail safe and brakes don't do much when a 60 car train is rolling down a hill at considerable speed.

It is called an "air brake" system - not a vacuum system.

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#10
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 1:29 PM

Not a vacuum, but pressure and springs.

The way I was taught, there are incredibly strong springs trying to crush the brake pads against the wheels, and the only thing holding the brake shoe away in the pressurized brake line.

You apply controlled braking by bleeding off a little air, and emergency braking by dumping all the air, or disconnecting the brake line.

For yard work, the cars have valves next to the connectors, yo you can hold pressure within the car by closing the valves with the brakes held open. Then, if there's an emergency, you can apply the brakes by opening one of the valves, which will stop the car until a locomotive (or a support car with an air compressor) comes along to recharge the air and open the brakes.

I'm reminded of a horror fiction site I visit occasionally. The artifacts the fictional Foundation contains are given one of three classifications, based on what would happen if the artifact were locked in a room and left alone. an object was Safe if leafing it in a locked room had no bad consequences (for example, Fat Boy, the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, would be 'safe,' if left alone it just sits there.) then they have classifications for 'it needs to be checked on occasionally or it can damage a local area' (like a time bomb that cannot be stopped, but can have its timer reset) and 'needs to be checked on or it can End the World (like the afformentioned time bomb, but big enough to blow up the planet) All industrial equipment, and all things involved in transportation, should be in the 'safe' category, they can be left alone for years, possibly decades, and they won't cause a danger to anyone.

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#11
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 2:42 PM

That all makes good common sense to me, but how can such an accident happen if what you say is true..........?

I personally have NO idea what is really used, not a clue!!

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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 7:30 AM
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#13

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/24/2014 5:54 PM

The simplest explanation is some clueless volunteer fireman released the brakes and was off the train before the brakes on the back cars pressurized. The train would then move uyntil the pressure fell far enough to reengage the brakes. When the pressure dropped the front brakes would engage first and you would get a "whiplash" as the back cars that still had some pressure would push the front cars, causing a derailment. The only unsafe thing about the system is not having a lock on the brake release to stop some idiot. This article was obviously written by a environmental activist who was banking on the general public also being idiots.

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#16
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/25/2014 2:36 PM

Ah, that makes a lot more sense. As usual, the press leaves out Boring-yet-important details in order to 'spice up' the story.

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#18
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/26/2014 9:55 PM

http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/timeline-lac-megantic/ is a timeline from CBC- not that I normally have much use for them, but in this case they seem to have slipped up and reported objectively. Note that the town is about 10 km (6 miles) from the parking site.

It does seem that there is a valid question as to the number of brakes set etc.- no question as to the principle of the system involved, but definitely as to the procedures and how they were followed. Seems to be all too common, until someone has to pay.

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#14

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/25/2014 7:04 AM

There are no springs. Its all done with air.

Turbine!?? Try a diesel engine. The last turbine was in the '60's and those didn't last very long.

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#17

Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/26/2014 12:41 PM

Maybe the Keystone pipeline is a better idea.

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#19
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Re: Dangerous Rail Tankers: Coming to a City Near You

07/26/2014 9:59 PM

Definitely. Now if some of you guys south of the border can get anywhere on this, I for one will gladly applaud- and I have nothing to do with that part of the industry. There are a couple of proposals that are entirely Canadian but that will probably take even longer!!

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