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21st of November 2018

Automotive



How to Derail a Runaway Train (and Save Australia)

Most things don’t happen the way they do in the movies. Changes are less sudden, incidents less surprising, humans less attractive. But when a runaway train tore through the Australian outback, the action sequence that followed seems to have come right out of a Tony Scott flick.

The whole mess started when the engineer stopped the 268-car, four-locomotive train and hopped out to inspect one of the cars, according to the Australian Transport Safety Board. While he was on the ground (presumably distracted by giant spiders and roving kangaroos), the train pulled away with nobody on board. Loaded down with iron ore, it was soon hitting 68 mph. The train, operated by metals, mining, and petroleum giant BHP, covered a remarkable 57 miles before the company stopped it—by flinging it off the tracks.

Nobody was hurt, though the investigators, who are working to determine why the train pulled away in the first place, rated the damage to the equipment as “substantial.”

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Runaway trains are rare, and runaway trains that remain on the lam for nearly an hour are even rarer. “That’s very unusual,” says Allan Zarembski, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Delaware who studies railroad safety and derailment prevention.

It does, however, make sense that it took railway authorities some time to track down and derail the thing, given the landscape of this section of Western Australia, called the Pilbara: Under 50,000 people live in the 194,000-square-mile region, known mainly for its iron mining operations. And it makes sense that they made their move 4 miles before the train got to Port Hedlund, population 14,000. When crashing a train, you want as few people around as possible.

As to the derailment itself, Zarembski suspects BHP went one of two routes. First: They might have used railroad derails, or derailers—relatively lightweight steel devices that clamp to the top of a railhead. In more normal circumstances, derailers can be used to prevent a slow-moving train from switching tracks. But when a train moves toward a derailer at a faster speed, the device creates a ramp that picks up the train’s wheels and pushes the undercarriage off the track. It, well, derails it.

Some derailers are portable; others are permanently attached to rail lines and can be moved into place remotely when needed. It sounds like the latter happened in the Pilbara—the ATSB’s initial report says the train was “deliberately derailed at a set of points operated by the control center.”

For a train moving this fast, though, Zarembski says a derailer might not do the trick. “The other way to derail a train is to cut out a piece of rail,” he says. “You can go in there with a cutting torch and cut out a foot or two of rail at a curve.” He estimates the whole operation might take two cuts and between 15 and 30 minutes, tops.

However they did it, the result was not pretty. YouTube footage purports to show the mangled wreckage of the train and track. BHP did not immediately respond to a request for comment but told Bloomberg that nearly a mile of track had been damaged by the derailment, and that it will take about a week for iron ore hauling to resume in the area. The shortage could lead to temporary price jumps worldwide for the raw material.

Here’s one spot of good news: The technology to prevent an extended runaway train incident like this one already exists. Positive Train Control systems use train- and rail-mounted GPS and sensors to track locomotive movement and alert conductors and dispatchers to imminent derailments or collisions. If humans don’t react to the warnings, the systems are designed to automatically brake trains before something terrible goes down. Congressional legislation demanded that America's rail operators implement Positive Train Control by 2015, but the Department of Transportation extended the deadline to December 2018 after many struggled to deploy the technology in time. According to the DOT’s Positive Train Control dashboard, just 18 of 40 railroads had PTC implemented on all their locomotives by July of this year.

Still, with any luck, Hollywood’s window of opportunity for runaway-train-based screenplays just might be closing.

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