Week in Review
On July 6, 2013, a 4,701 ft-long train weighing 10,287 tons carrying crude oil stopped for the night at Nantes, Quebec. She stopped on the mainline as the siding was occupied. The crew of one parked the train, set the manual handbrakes on all 5 locomotives and 10 of the 72 freight cars and shut down 4 of the 5 locomotives. Leaving one on to supply air pressure for the air brakes. Then caught a taxi and headed for a motel.
The running locomotive had a broken piston. Causing the engine to puff out black smoke and sparks as it sat there idling. Later that night someone called 911 and reported that there was a fire on that locomotive. The fire department arrived and per their protocol shut down the running locomotive before putting out the fire. Otherwise the running locomotive would only continue to feed the fire by pumping more fuel into it. After they put out the fire they called the railroad who sent some personnel out to make sure the train was okay. After they did they left, too. But ever since the fire department had shut down that locomotive air pressure had been dropping in the train line. Eventually this loss of air pressure released the air brakes. Leaving only the manual handbrakes to hold the train. Which they couldn’t. The train started to coast downhill. Picking up speed. Reaching about 60 mph as it hit a slow curve with a speed limit of 10 mph in Lac-Mégantic and jumped the track. Derailing 63 of the 72 tank cars. Subsequent tank car punctures, oil spills and explosions killed some 47 people and destroyed over 30 buildings.
This is the danger of shipping crude oil in rail cars. There’s a lot of potential and kinetic energy to control. Especially at these weights. For that puts a lot of mass in motion that can become impossible to stop. Of course, adding safety features to prevent things like this from happening, such as making these tank cars puncture-proof, can add a lot of non-revenue weight. Which takes more fuel to move. And that costs more money. Which will raise the cost of delivering this crude oil to refineries. And increase the cost of the refined products they make from it. Unless the railroads find other ways to cut costs. Say by shortening delivery times by traveling faster. Allowing them an extra revenue-producing delivery or two per year to make up for the additional costs. But thanks to the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, though, not only will they be adding additional non-revenue weight they will be slowing their trains down, too (see Rail safety improvements announced by Lisa Raitt in wake of Lac-Mégantic posted 4/23/2014 on CBC News).
Changes to improve rail safety were announced Wednesday by federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in response to recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
The federal government wants a three-year phase-out or retrofit of older tank cars that are used to transport crude oil or ethanol by rail, but will not implement a key TSB recommendation that rail companies conduct route planning when transporting dangerous goods…
There are 65,000 of the more robust Dot-111 cars in North America that must be phased out or retrofitted within three years if used in Canada, Raitt said, adding, “Officials have advised us three years is doable.” She said she couldn’t calculate the cost of the retrofits, but told reporters, “industry will be footing the bill…”
The transport minister also announced that mandatory emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments in Canada…
Raitt also said railway companies will be required to reduce the speed of trains carrying dangerous goods. The speed limit will be 80 kilometres an hour [about 49 mph] for key trains, she said. She added that risk assessments will be conducted in certain areas of the country about further speed restrictions, a request that came from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities…
Brian Stevens head of UNIFOR, which represents thousands of unionized rail car inspectors at CN, CP and other Canadian rail companies, called today’s announcement a disappointment.
“This announcement really falls short, and lets Canadians down,” he told CBC News.
“These DOT-11 cars, they should be banned from carrying crude oil immediately. They can still be used to carry vegetable oil, or diesel fuel, but for carrying this dangerous crude there should be an immediate moratorium and that should have been easy enough for the minister to do and she failed to do that.
“There’s a lot of other tank cars in the system that can carry crude,” Stevens explained. “There doesn’t need to be this reliance on these antiquated cars that are prone to puncture.”
Industry will not be footing the bill. That industry’s customers will be footing the bill. As all businesses pass on their costs to their customers. As it is the only way a business can stay in business. Because they need to make money to pay all of their employees as well as all of their bills. So if their costs increase they will have to raise their prices to ensure they can pay all of their employees and all of their bills.
What will the cost of this retrofit be? To make these 65,000 tank cars puncture-proof? Well, adding weight to these cars will take labor and material. That additional weight may require modifications to the springs, brakes and bearings. Perhaps even requiring another axel or two per car. Let’s assume that it will take a crew of 6 three days to complete this retrofit per tank car (disassemble, reinforce and reassemble as well as completing other modifications required because of the additional weight). Assuming a union labor cost (including taxes and benefits) of $125/hour and non-labor costs equaling labor costs would bring the retrofit for these 65,000 tanks cars to approximately $2.34 billion. Which they will, of course, pass on to their customers. Who will pass it on all the way to the gas station where we fill up our cars. They will also pass down the additional fuel costs to pull all that additional nonrevenue weight.
Making these trains safer will be costly. Of course, it begs this burning question: Why not just build pipelines? Like the Keystone XL pipeline? Which can deliver more crude oil faster and safer than any train can deliver it. And with a smaller environmental impact. As pipelines don’t crash or puncture. So why not be safer and build the Keystone XL pipeline in lieu of using a more dangerous mode of transportation that results in tragedies like that at Lac-Mégantic? Why? Because of politics. To shore up the Democrat base President Obama would rather risk Lac-Mégantic tragedies. Instead of doing what’s best for the American economy. And the American people. Namely, building the Keystone XL pipeline.
Tags: air brakes, air pressure, Canada, costs, crude oil, Dot-111 cars, fuel, handbrakes, Keystone, Keystone pipeline, Keystone XL pipeline, Lac-Megantic, locomotive, North America, oil, pipeline, puncture, rail cars, rail safety, railroad, retrofit, revenue, tank cars, train
Week in Review
Oil fuels the modern economy. We use it everywhere. And can’t live without it. Even those people who hate it sipping their coffee while they surf the Internet and engage in social media in their favorite coffee shop. None of which they could do if it were not for oil. The coffee they drink crossed the ocean on a ship burning diesel refined from oil. The smartphone they use contains plastic. Made from oil. And these smartphones crossed the ocean on a ship burning diesel before they could use them. The cars in the drive-thru at the coffee shops are burning gasoline refined from oil. The freight trains and trucks burn diesel that deliver the goods these coffee shops sell.
Oil makes everything better in our lives. Without oil life expectancy would plummet. As hospitals wouldn’t have any life-saving equipment made from plastic. Ambulances couldn’t speed patients to the hospital. And there would be no backup generators during a power outage. As there would be no backup power available at our wastewater treatment plants. Or at our freshwater pumping stations. We would return to the 19th century. Using steam and water power in our factories. Horses in our cities. Doing our business in an outhouse. And drawing our water from a well. Except for the rich, of course. Who would be able to enjoy these luxuries. Luxuries that most of us take for granted today.
Oil is so important in our lives that we should be doing everything within our power to make it as inexpensive and plentiful as possible. Like building the Keystone XL pipeline. So we can transport oil safely in large quantities. Reducing the cost of transportation. Thus lowering the price at the pump. Which would also prevent things like this from happening (see What’s in rail tankers and why can’t we know? posted 9/27/2013 on CBC News).
Nearly three months after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, rail safety remains at the top of the national agenda with a meeting of federal and provincial transport ministers this week focusing on the question of what is in tanker cars and why provinces and municipalities can’t get that information.
After the conclusion of the meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba’s transportation minister said the legacy of the Lac-Mégantic disaster in July must be safer rail system across Canada.
Steve Ashton said there is an urgent need to look comprehensively at rail safety at a time when more oil is being shipped by rail and the Lac Mégantic disaster is fresh in the public mind.
This is what happens when the environmentalists get their way. And President Obama secures their support. And their money. President Obama opposes the Keystone XL pipeline. And other pipelines where he can. Because his liberal base hates oil. Even though the lives they enjoy would not be possible without oil. So their opposition to oil and pipelines forces oil onto trains. That travel through our cities. Sometimes derail. And explode. Killing 47 in Lac-Mégantic. And destroying a part of that city.
With continued opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline more oil will travel by train. More trains will derail. And explode. But the Democrats will secure the support of their liberal base. And the environmentalists can claim a victory in the war against oil. While they enjoy their coffee and smartphones in their favorite coffee shop. That only oil makes possible.
Tags: coffee shop, diesel, Keystone XL, Keystone XL pipeline, Lac-Megantic, oil, pipeline, plastic, President Obama, train
Getting a Long and Heavy Train Moving was no good unless you could Stop It
Trains shrank countries. Allowing people to travel greater distances faster than ever before. And move more freight than ever before. Freight so heavy that no horse could have ever pulled it. The only limitation was the power of the locomotive. Well, that. And one other thing. The ability to stop a long and heavy train. For getting one moving was pretty easy. Tracks were typically level. And steel wheels on steel rails offered little resistance. So once a train got moving it didn’t take much to keep it moving. Especially when there was the slightest of inclines to roll down.
Getting a long and heavy train moving was no good unless you could stop it. And stopping one was easier said than done. As trains grew longer it proved impossible for the locomotive to stop it alone. So each car in the consist (the rolling stock the locomotive pulls behind it) had a manual brake. Operated by hand. By brakemen. Running along the tops of cars while the train was moving. Turning wheels that applied the brakes on each car. Not the safest of jobs. One that couldn’t exist today. Because of the number of brakemen that died on the job. Due to the inherent danger of running along the top of a moving train. Luckily, today, all brakemen have lost their jobs. As we have safer ways to stop trains.
Of course, we don’t need to just stop trains. A lot of the time we just need to slow them down a little. Such as when approaching a curve. Going through a reduced speed zone (bad track, wooden bridge, going through a city, etc.). Or going down a slight incline. In fact slowing down on an incline is crucial. For if gravity is allowed to accelerate a train down an incline it can lead to a runaway. That’s when a train gathers speed with no way of stopping it. It can derail in a curve. It can run into another train. Or crash into a terminal building full of people. All things that have happened. The most recent disaster being the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Where a parked oil train rolled away down an incline, derailed and exploded. Killing some 38 people. While many more are still missing and feared dead.
Dynamic Breaking can Slow a Train but to Stop a Train you need to Engage the Air Brakes
Trains basically have two braking systems today. Air brakes. And dynamic braking. Dynamic braking involves changing the traction motors into generators. The traction motors are underneath the locomotive. The big diesel engine in the locomotive turns a generator making electric power. This power creates powerful magnetic fields in the traction motors that rotate the axles. The heavier the train the more power it takes to rotate these axles. It takes a little skill to get a long and heavy train rolling. Too much power and the steel wheels may slip on the steel rails. Or the motors may require more power than the generator can provide. As the torque required to move the train may be greater than traction motors can provide. Thus ‘stalling’ the motor. As it approaches stall torque it slows the rotation of the motor to zero while increasing the current from the generator to maximum. As it struggles to rotate an axle it is not strong enough to rotate. If this continues the maximum flow of current will cause excessive heat buildup in the motor windings. Causing great damage.
Dynamic breaking reverses this process. The traction motors become the generator. Using the forward motion of the train to rotate the axles. The electric power this produces feeds a resistive load that draws a heavy current form these traction motors. Typically it’s the section of the locomotive directly behind the cab. It draws more than the motors can provide. Bringing them towards stall torque. Thus slowing their rotation. And slowing the train. Converting the kinetic energy of the moving train into heat in the resistive load. Which has a large cooling fan located above it to keep it from getting so hot that it starts melting.
Dynamic breaking can slow a train. But it cannot stop it. For as it slows the axles spin slower producing less electric power. And as the electric current falls away it cannot ‘stall’ the generator (the traction motors operating as generators during dynamic braking). Which is where the air brakes come in. Which they can use in conjunction with dynamic braking on a steep incline. To bring a train to a complete stop. Or to a ‘quick’ stop (in a mile or so) in an emergency. Either when the engineer activates the emergency brake. Or something happens to break open the train line. The air brake line that runs the length of the train.
When Parking a Train they Manually set the Hand Brakes BEFORE shutting down the Locomotive
The first air brake system used increasing air pressure to stop the train. Think of the brake in a car. When you press the brake pedal you force brake fluid to a cylinder at each wheel. Forcing brake shoes or pads to come into contact with the rotating wheel. The first train air brake worked similarly. When the engineer wanted to stop the train he forced air to cylinders at each wheel. Which moved linkages that forced brake shoes into contact with the rotating wheel. It was a great improvement to having men run along the top of a moving train. But it had one serious drawback. If some cars separated from the train it would break open the train line. So the air the engineer forced into it vented to the atmosphere without moving the brake linkages. Which caused a runaway or two in its day. George Westinghouse solved that problem. By creating a failsafe railway air brake system.
The Westinghouse air brake system dates back to 1868. And we still use his design today. Which includes an air compressor at the engine. Which provides air pressure to the train line. Metal pipes below cars. And rubber hoses between cars. Running the full length of the train. At each car is an air reservoir. Or air tank. And a triple valve. Before a train moves it must charge the system (train line and reservoirs at each car) to, say, 90 pounds per square inch (PSI) of air pressure. Once charged the train can move. To apply the air brakes the engineer reduces the pressure by a few PSI in the train line. The triple valve senses this and allows air to exit the air reservoir and enter the brake cylinder. Pushing the linkages to bring the brake shoes into contact with the train wheels. Providing a little resistance. Slowing the train a little. Once the pressure in the reservoir equals the pressure in the train line the triple valve stops the air from exiting the reservoir. To slow the train more the engineer reduces the pressure by a few more PSI. The triple valve senses this and lets more air out of the reservoir to again equalize the pressure in the reservoir and train line. When the air leaves the reservoir it goes to the brake cylinder. Moving the linkage more. Increasing the pressure of the brake shoes on the wheels. Further slowing the train. The engineer continues this process until the train stops. Or he is ready to increase speed (such as at the bottom of an incline). To release the brakes the engineer increases the pressure in the train line. Once the triple valve senses the pressure in the train line is greater than in the reservoir the air in the brake cylinders vents to the atmosphere. Releasing the brakes. While the train line brings the pressure in the reservoir back to 90 PSI.
This system is failsafe because the brakes apply with a loss of air pressure in the train line. And if there is a rapid decline in air pressure the triple valve will sense that, too. Say a coupler fails, separating two cars. And the train line. Causing the air pressure to fall from 90 PSI to zero very quickly. When this happens the triple valve dumps the air in an emergency air reservoir along with the regular air reservoir into the brake cylinder. Slamming the brake shoes onto the train wheels. But as failsafe as the Westinghouse air brake system is it can still fail. If an engineer applies the brakes and releases them a few times in a short period (something an experienced engineer wouldn’t do) the air pressure will slowly fall in both the train line and the reservoirs. Because it takes time to recharge the air system (train line and reservoirs). And if you don’t give it the time you will decrease your braking ability. As there is less air in the reservoir available to go to the brake cylinder to move the linkages. To the point the air pressure is so low that there isn’t enough pressure to push the brake shoes into the train wheels. At this point you lose all braking. With no ability to stop or slow the train. Causing a runaway.
So, obviously, air pressure is key to a train’s air brake system. Even if the train is just parked air will leak out of the train line. If you’re standing near a locomotive (say at a passenger train station) and hear an air compressor start running it is most likely recharging the train line. For it needs air pressure in the system to hold the brake shoes on the train wheels. Which is why when they park a train they manually set the hand brakes (on a number of cars they determined will be sufficient to prevent the train from rolling) BEFORE shutting down the locomotive. Once the ‘parking brake’ is set then and only then will they shut down the locomotive. Letting the air bleed out of the air brake system. Which appears to be what happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer may not have set enough hand brakes to prevent the train from rolling on the incline it was on when he parked the train for the night. On a main line. Because another train was on a siding. And leaving the lead locomotive in a five locomotive lashup unmanned and running to maintain the air pressure. Later that night there was a fire in that locomotive. Before fighting that fire the fire department shut it down. Which shut down the air compressor that was keeping the train line charged. Later that night as the air pressure bled away the air brakes released and the hand brakes didn’t hold the train on the incline. Resulting in the runaway (that may have reached a speed of 63 mph). Derailment at a sharp curve. And the explosion of some of its tank cars filled with crude oil. Showing just how dangerous long, heavy trains can be when you can’t stop them. Or keep them stopped.
Tags: air brakes, air compressor, air pressure, axles, brake, brake cylinder, brake shoes, brakemen, current, diesel engine, dynamic braking, electric power, failsafe, generator, George Westinghouse, Lac-Megantic, locomotive, long and heavy train, manual brake, railway air brake, reservoir, resistive load, runaway, stall torque, steel rails, steel wheels, stop trains, traction motor, train, train line, triple valve, Westinghouse