Thursday, July 11, 2013

So now we know: They can blow up

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Regular readers of this blog may remember that at the end of most of my writings on how the fracking industry is positively impacting our industry, I generally add a caveat regarding the future. I suggested that there would ultimately be one or more accidents involving crude-by-rail (CBR) or some of the NGLs (natural gas liquids) that fracking produces.

Lac-Megantic fireI predicted good times for the rail industry would continue after such an accident providing we could overcome the backlash that would likely result. For instance, I suggested, putting an entire CBR train on the ground in the middle of a nature preserve would take some getting over.

Now we know that this stuff can burn, too.

Up to this point, I can say, for the record, that virtually everyone involved in CBR has the same opinion. It's bad stuff when it spills into a river or stream. No one with whom I have spoken has a ready explanation for the fireballs seen on TV and in newspaper photos. It's not supposed to burn that way without the presence of an additional accelerant. (There are rumors of loaded propane cars being stored in the area.)

At this point in time, no one has a proven explanation for the fireball. We'll have to see what develops as the entire episode is analyzed by professionals.

There is also no clear view as to why the accident occurred.

However, since I was once a brakeman on my own freight train and regularly interacted with that train's braking system, there are some things we can suggest about what it was possible to do to secure the train in question:

1. Modern freight trains are equipped with the latest version of the original Westinghouse air brakes. The system works with the locomotive "pumping up" the air line (train line) with air to allow the release of the air brakes. Once the system has been energized, a reduction in brake pipe pressure applies the brakes through the train. Normally, the brakes are applied in a "service" mode where air pressure is reduced to brakes and control train speed or an "emergency" mode where air pressure is rapidly reduced to provide maximum braking. The system is designed to cause the brakes to come on without human intervention if there is a derailment or other occasion when the air is allowed to escape from a broken train line.

2. From the news reports, it is unclear how the train's air brakes had been applied. Regardless, sufficient hand brakes should have been applied to hold the train in place without air brakes. At this point, management has indicated doubt that sufficient hand brakes had been set. However, in the absence of external factors, the air brakes should have kept the train in place.

3. It has reported that firefighters extinguished a fire on one of the locomotives prior to the accident. Apparently they have acknowledged that they shut down the locomotive. Once shut down, the airbrakes on the train would have eventually lost effectiveness. However, in this case, they lost effectiveness very quickly for reasons which are not fully understood at this time.

4. Now, the worse case situation would be one where no hand brakes were set on the cars themselves. (My experience and understanding of industry practices is that 10 or more hand brakes would be expected. (MMA's management has now suspended the engineer in question for not setting the required number of hand brakes.)

No one can really explain what happened in this tragedy until investigators get to the bottom of a number of "why?" questions.

I would like to say, however, especially to the non-railroaders who are reading this, that there are reasons why so many hazardous materials are moved by rail. It is one of the safest modes of transportation for the movement of bad stuff in bulk that needs to go from Point A to Point B.

Our industry will weather this. It would be nice to have some answers, though.

Having said the above, one of my sources with whom I discussed this blog suggested I should alert my readers that regulators in both Canada and U.S. are sure to use this incident in connection with their investigations into the safety of DOT111 general purpose tank cars in CBR service. Whatever happens, you can be sure it will be politicized.

Tony Kruglinski

Tony Kruglinski is President of Railroad Financial Corp., a financial advisory firm. He also serves as Chairman of Rail Equipment Finance (www.railequipmentfinance.com), an annual industry conference addressing critical developments concerning North America's railcar and locomotive fleet.

Kruglinski also mentors the annual Railroad Financial Desk Book, published each autumn. His Railway Age column, Financial Edge, is a longtime staple of the magazine and now will appear each month. Contact Tony at tkruglinski@railfin.com.

Website: www.railequipmentfinance.com