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A common cause of train derailments: broken track

Andy Uhler Oct 9, 2015
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A common cause of train derailments: broken track

Andy Uhler Oct 9, 2015
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The Federal Railroad Administration announced Friday that a broken rail caused a train derailment in West Virginia in February that spilled more than 300,000 gallons of volatile oil, started a fire that burned for more than four days and forced more than a thousand people to leave their homes. The agency also said it will release new track standards to try to eliminate these derailments next week. 

There’s almost a quarter million miles of railroad track in the United States. To put that in perspective, the interstate highway system’s total length is less than 50,000 miles.

“Railroad infrastructure in this country really has its roots in the 19th century,” said Tom Zoellner, author of the book, “Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.”

He said the railroad tracks are old, and he wouldn’t want to operate a railroad company because the company that uses the tracks owns them. They’ve got to foot the bill for inspections and repairs. 

“Railroads have spent up to $29 billion in recent years because the network is so wide,” he said, “and because the flaws in these rails can be really difficult to spot.”

CSX, the company responsible for the train in West Virginia, has been fined $25,000 by the government. That’s the maximum civil penalty for this violation.

This all points to a problem: Broken tracks account for a third of all railroad accidents. Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said the tracks weren’t built for the amount of stress they’re under.

“Our train lengths have increased, and some of our freight cars are not only 30 or 40 tons, but they’re 100 tons,” he said.

Zoellner said it’s because a lot of them are carrying oil. 

“You get this sort of swaying and swashing effect which transfers a lot of that energy down through the rails,” he said.

Zoellner said getting crude off the rails is the only argument in favor of building more pipelines that he sees resonating with environmentalists.

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