Canadian Tragedy

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I was saddened to read this morning that a train with a load of crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, and I started writing this post. I heard during the afternoon there was one person killed, and more may still be found. In addition, the oil spilled into the Chaudière River. And most curiously, the derailment wasn’t from overspeed or failed brakes or a crash or the usual stuff. Instead, the train took off on its own and committed suicide … go figure.

The train had been parked and the conductor was not aboard when “somehow, the train got released,” Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, Inc Vice President Joseph McGonigle said on Saturday.

“We’re not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book. He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief,” McGonigle said. The Star

railroad tank car explosion canadaFigure 1. Derailed tank cars, Canada SOURCE

In addition to the human compassion we all feel for the folks to whom these tragedies occur, plus hoping that no train workers or hobos were hurt, the crash sparked off a boatload of thoughts about the absolute need for storable transportable energy; about the inherent dangers of concentrated stored energy; and about how we move stored energy around the planet.

First, energy is synonymous with development. Our civilization requires huge amounts of it. Without the ability to extract, move, and store immense amounts of energy, we’re literally back to the Bronze Age, where wood melted the bronze and cooked the food. I’ve tried living at that level, it’s not my idea of a good party. Plus, if everyone burns wood for energy the world will look like Haiti … so we’ll take the need for some kind of storable energy as a given.

Next, stored energy is inherently dangerous. If you accidentally drop a wrench across the terminals of a car battery, it could cost you your life … and that’s just a car battery, not a railroad tank car full of crude oil. If stored energy gets loose, it is immensely dangerous.

The materials in which the energy is stored are also often, as in this case, a danger to the environment. If you think electricity solves the problem, crack open a car battery and consider the toxicity of the chemicals and heavy metals involved.

Finally, there are more dangerous and less dangerous ways to transport energy.

Arguably the least dangerous way to transport energy is in the form of electricity. We move unimaginably large amounts of energy around the world with only occasional injuries and fatalities. Don’t get me wrong, a 440,000 volt power line is not inherently safe. But we are able to locate our electric wires in such a way that we don’t intrude into their space, and vice versa.

But that’s just moving electrons. If you have to move the molecules, the actual substance itself, things get more hazardous.

In terms of danger, railroads aren’t the most dangerous. That’d be the fuel trucks carrying gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and propane on the highways. Plus of course the stored energy in the fuel tanks of the cars and trucks involved in every crash. If you consider an electric power line transporting energy running alongside a freeway, with each vehicle transporting stored energy in the form of liquid fuel, and how often lives are lost or damage done from the power lines, versus how much damage the stored energy does when a tanker truck crashes and catches fire on the freeway, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

I’d put railroads as the second most dangerous way to move energy. This for a couple reasons. One is because people built along the railroad tracks, and cities grew up around the rail hubs. This means you’re moving things like crude oil and gasoline, each of which stores huge amounts of what was originally solar energy, through highly populated areas.

Another is that a railroad tank car stores a huge amount of energy. A tank full of crude oil hold about 820 barrels of oil, which conveniently has about the same energy as a thousand tons of TNT. Of course, normally this energy is released slowly, over time. Even if the tank ruptures and the fuel pours out, the release of energy occurs over tens of minutes.

However, the fuel is contained in enclosed tanks. As in this case, if fire is raging around an intact tank car, it heats the tank until the contents start boiling. Depending on the fuel involved, if the vapor pressure of the contents is high enough, the tank can rupture in what is called a BLEVE. That stands for “Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion”, and it was the cause of death in boiler explosions in old-time Mississippi steamships. When a boiling liquid under pressure suddenly experiences an instantaneous pressure drop, the entire body of the liquid can directly flash into vapor. With a steam engine the liquid is water, and the resulting steam from an exploding boiler was incredibly lethal and destructive. Now, consider a BLEVE of a flammable liquid … instead of making an expanding ball of steam, you get an expanding ball of fire.

At that point, the “kilotonnes of TNT” is no longer a metaphor.

So what is safer than a railroad? Well, on land there are pipelines, and at sea there are tankers. The tankers are dangerous for the environment, but given the amount of energy moved per year, the spills are not numerous. Obviously, as a sailor and a commercial fisherman I’d prefer there’d be no spills … but energy is synonymous with development, and stored energy is inherently dangerous. So all we can do is continue to improve the safety of the tankers, and stay aware of the dangers. Having worked in the industry, I know the many safety regulations surrounding tanker ships. These regulations are indeed numerous and cover the situation well … and despite that, there is always more to learn.

On land, pipelines have an excellent safety record. People are generally unaware of how many pipelines there are in the US. Here are the trunklines that just move crude oil, including from Canada:

crude oil trunk pipelinesFigure 2. Crude oil trunklines SOURCE 

Figure 3 shows the major pipelines for “refined products”, meaning gasoline, diesel, and the like:

major refined products pipelinesFigure 3. Pipelines carrying refined products. SOURCE

Finally, Figure 4 shows the pipelines carrying gas, both within and between the states:

major gas pipelinesFigure 4. Gas pipelines, from the EIA

Considering the very large number and length of the pipelines, the number of accidents per year is very, very small. Like electrical lines, we generally don’t notice (or even know) that these pipelines exist, but they move huge amounts of many kinds of both crude and refined products all over the US.

Which brings me to the final thought brought up by the Canadian train derailment.

There is a proposed expansion of the KeystoneXL Pipeline, to handle an increased amount of heavy crude from Alberta. Opponents of the expansion think that stopping the pipeline expansion will somehow stop the flow of Canadian heavy crude into the US. This is not true for two reasons.

First, the existing Keystone pipeline is already bringing Alberta heavy crude into the US. The expansion will just, well, expand that amount.

More to the point, however, is the fact that large amounts of Alberta heavy crude is also being moved into the US by railroad. And not by just any railroad. It’s mostly coming in on the Burlington Northern Railway.

And by what can only be considered an amazing coincidence, the Burlington Northern Railway is owned by a major Obama donor. And by an even more amazing coincidence, the major donor bought the BNR just three years ago.

And this was not just any major Obama donor, but Mr. Warren Buffett, a key money supplier for the Obama re-election effort …

Now of course, the longer that Mr. Obama can delay approving the Keystone Pipeline, the longer the oil will be moved by Mr. Buffet’s railroad. I’m sure you can predict what Mr. Buffet wanted for his investment in the Obama campaign, those guys don’t pitch in the big bucks without wanting something …

And very likely Buffett learned early on, during Obama’s first administration, that Obama would block the pipeline, which is probably why he bought it. Buffett is many things but he’s no fool. Will we ever be able to prove that chain of events? Don’t be naive, Buffett is  immensely wealthy for a reason. He doesn’t leave tracks, he doesn’t show his cards, he plays everything close to the vest. We won’t find any smoking guns on this one.

I find it quite amazing. In the late 1800s, the railroads were major players in the political scene, and no one made an important decision without first kissing the rings of the railroad barons.

And now, more than a hundred years later, we still have a President kissing the ring of a railroad baron before making his decision.

So … don’t expect any quick resolution by President Obama of the Keystone Pipeline issue. Every day it is delayed, hundreds of thousands of dollars flow into Warren Buffet’s pockets.

And US politics continues to fashion in the old, time-tested way … money talks. And even in this modern time of emails and smartphones, I’m glad to know some of the most valuable hoary, ancient US political traditions have been kept alive.

And when I say valuable traditions … I mean very, very valuable. These days, being a friend of Obama is worth big bucks.

Finally, we see that the claims by the opponents of the pipeline that they are trying to “protect the environment” are simply not true. If they were really concerned about the environment, they’d want the KeystoneXL pipeline expansion. It is much more dangerous to the environment to move the Alberta heavy crude by railroad tank car than by pipeline … and the tragedy in Canada is an excellent example of why.

And a happy Independence Day weekend to all,


PS—In any case, if the pipeline is blocked, the Alberta heavy crude will still be burned, either shipped to China, or shipped to the US and Buffett will be even richer, or burned in Canada, but it will be burned. That’s the crazy part—the opposition to the pipeline, even if successful, will achieve nothing … welcome to the crazy world of modern environmental NGOs and their followers …

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Dennis Hand
July 6, 2013 11:06 pm

This is why we need pipelines, instead of enriching Warren Buffett with his trains.

Keen Observer
July 6, 2013 11:16 pm

Avast! gave me a malware warning of the type “Malicious URL” on the header image “wuwt_header9.jpg”. Is that a false positive?

Keen Observer
July 6, 2013 11:18 pm

Actually, I stand corrected: 46 different error reports.

Stuart Lynne
July 6, 2013 11:19 pm

If Keystone XL is rejected then a slightly reduced Keystone XL will be proposed and built. It will stop just short of the border on both sides in a location where rail access is available. Since it does not cross the border no federal permission is required.
Two or three unit trains will simply shunt the oil 20-50 km from the north side of the border to the south side. Again no federal permission is required to shunt oil by rail.
That gets things going. Slightly more expensive but certainly doable. And at some point the bridging section will be OK’d and built.
There is simply no circumstance short of the apocalypse where the oil sands don’t get dug out and used.

July 6, 2013 11:30 pm

It appears the train was on fire near where it was parked and 10 km from where it crashed. I suspect this is more than an unfortunate accident.
You can add susceptibility to sabotage/terrorism to your list of risks.

July 6, 2013 11:32 pm

Hi Willis,I too have had experience dealing with large amounts of energy being transported.Mainly by ships.We also have gas transported around NZ by pipeline.In my 45 years there has been only one minor spill from an FPSO,and the rules are very strict.I’m afraid I don’t totally agree with you if KXL is blocked,you say it will gain nothing.I say it will lead to more problems,accidents,suffering by workers through accidents etc.with the probability of more tragidies as we have seen here.So I think it will lead to more than nothing in the way of lost lives,spills,contamination etc.Why do the greens,powers that be want it stopped?you probably hit the nail on the head.Mr Buffett being one.
Pipelines have always,and will always be the safest way to shift huge quantities of oil/gas/condensate etc.Probably the most economic as well,but then,I’m not an expert.Thanks for that.

McComber Boyc
July 6, 2013 11:43 pm

Every time I hear of a train wreck and dumping things into rivers I can’t help but remember a tank car of Metamsodium dumped into the Sacramento river above Dunsmuir, California. Every living thing in the river and part of the lake below died. The river of my grandfather and my father was wiped out.
We must transport, but it is imperative to do it as safely as possible. Hauling oil by rail is criminally stupid and handsomely profitable. Forget Obama. We need to become F.O.O fighters if we have any hope of surviving over the next few years. (FOO = Friends of Obama)

McComber Boy
July 6, 2013 11:44 pm

old = oil

July 6, 2013 11:47 pm

Apparently, the train was stopped for a driver change, but rolled away and crashed.

Walt Ughes
July 7, 2013 12:28 am

Don’t forget Warren’s good buddy and an investor lead the Nebraska opposition to the pipeline which provided cover to delay the decision until after the election. Shocked. Shocked. Happy 4th. Freedom is rare and precious.

Dan in california.
July 7, 2013 12:34 am

This is a nit, but I believe it’s not Burlington Northern Railway. it’s BNSF, or Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Janice Moore
July 7, 2013 12:55 am

“I suspect this is more than an unfortunate accident.” [P. Bradley 11:30PM, 7/6/13]
I do too. It reminded me of an article by E. D. Fales, Jr. in Popular Science Monthly (October, 1961) — (look it up to read a story of unforgettable heroism) — about a runaway locomotive on Nov. 12, 1959 that took off from the Jersey Central Railroad at 10:29PM (Note: The MM & A runaway engine event also happened after dark). As far as I know the mystery was never solved. The starting procedure was so complicated that only an expert could start the locomotive. The veteran crew testified that they had carefully gone through the 8-step shutdown routine.
I think that in both cases it was intentional:
Only a person familiar with starting locomotives can start one once it is properly secured. Accidental engine departure is virtually impossible. Unless there was some highly improbable (but, of course, possible) mechanical failure (including the throttle stuck open) or the engineer was grossly incompetent
(“Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine”, perhaps? — that will be quickly known, for the Transportation Safety Commission(?) will have had the man give them a sample to drug test ASAP),
it almost certainly was deliberate. That engine was either: 1) not properly secured (no chalk and brakes not secured) AND the throttle stuck on (i.e., the safety measure of the “deadman” pedal bypassed); or 2) started and the throttle set to “GO” by a train-saavy saboteur.
I do not believe the saboteur(s) intended to murder anyone, for the engine was nearly 7 miles outside the town, around 1AM, when it started to roll along with no crew aboard. That the engine derailed before the town indicates they planned the “accident” to not harm anyone (some of the cars, however, didn’t cooperate and kept on going right into town). They are, nevertheless, guilty (if my guess is correct) of reckless homicide for intentionally incurring a known risk of deadly harm.
I doubt they will ever be caught. Unless…. a defector from the co-conspirators decides to talk. We shall see!
My point (v. a v. the TOPIC, ahem): EVERYTHING is susceptible to terrorism. While a pipeline may be safer, trains are not inherently (nor unacceptably) super-dangerous. They are simply, like anything, vulnerable to human evil.

July 7, 2013 12:57 am

I think it was sabotage you no what nutters the greens are.i would not put something like this past them.

July 7, 2013 1:02 am

On figure 2, that red circle underneath the arrowhead for “Rangeland”… that’s where I live (don’t come to my house, please).
I actually watched them build quite a lot of that pipeline. Today I could drive you along beside it and you’d never be able to tell. Not unless you follow the lines from the stations.
Now, the railroads are a different thing. I can show you the tracks, where you have to wait for multi-kilometer long trains of oil tankers. And I’m not exaggerating, one of my friends drives trains.
And Janice, it’s probably a bit soon to be talking about sabotage, but the anti-oil people are certainly capable of it.
All technology is vulnerable at some level to sabotage and human error, including otherwise reliable Boeing 777’s.

Janice Moore
July 7, 2013 1:16 am

LOL, Codetech, while I would love to see your pretty lake and all the birds……. AS IF I could find my way to your house from that map. Don’t worry, It’s-never-too-soon-to-talk-conspiracy-Janice, heh, heh, heh, won’t be driving up your driveway anytime soon.
Re: The tragic Boeing 777 crash landing (pilot error, IMO), at San Francisco today —
While the drive-by media has been trumpeting that it’s the first time anyone has died in a 777 crash (and that is, indeed terrible), I would like (since my family has a long history with Boeing (“or I’m not going” — smile)) to say…………….. OUT OF ABOUT 350 CREW AND PASSENGERS, ONLY TWO DIED.
The old girl managed to land despite crashing into the sea wall on her way in. Way to go, Boeing, you still build the finest planes in the world.

July 7, 2013 1:21 am

Janice, what I find suspicious is the train both ran away and was seen to be on fire shortly afterwards. Heck of a coincidence.

A. Scott
July 7, 2013 1:34 am

Willis … I agree with all of your comments regarding the pipelines and efficacy and safety of using them. And that those blocking Keystone and similar are outright nutjobs with no basis in fact for their silly positions.
That said I think we need some perspective here. I do not have the statistics, but from a pure gut level (and from some past research) it seems train, and even truck, transport of flammable and/or hazardous materials is pretty darn safe considering the volume of material moved and the huge numbers of miles covered in the various methods of transport.
We transport massive amounts of goods of all types back and forth across the country, including large amounts of flammable and or hazardous materials. Accidents are pretty rare. Significant accidents are extremely rare.
A Boeing 777 crashed today at SFO – with miraculously almost all passengers walking away. As a pilot it seems pretty clear what likely happened – a low approach with it appearing the aircraft either hit the sea wall at end of runway or touched down early. There was pretty clearly a heavy tail strike, hitting the sea wall or runway threshold – shearing the tail but leaving rest of fuselage largely intact. The weather was excellent. There is no apparent reasonable explanation why the aircraft would get so far outside normal operations as this.This photo, and condition of the fuselage post crash seems to confirm the tail strike at the sea wall.
It looks like and is a bad accident – and it is truly amazing there was not a large loss of life. However this is reported as only the 2nd hull loss for 777’s since introduction in 1995. This crash would in reality seem to show the overall high safety record of these aircraft.
Again – I don’t disagree with any of your comments – just think we need to be careful about conflating a single isolated event into something more than what it is – a single event. No mater how horrendous, and acknowledging the extreme impact to the community and people where this occurred, it just seems we should be careful not to use it, without supporting data (which may well be there) on what the safety aspect/comparison really is.
Over the road and train transport are two critical components of our transportation system – we can shift some of their work to pipelines – but certainly we cannot shift all hazardous or flammable materials to pipes. IF we smear these methods as unsafe in this instance how do we justify claiming they are safe for what we continue to need them for ….

Janice Moore
July 7, 2013 1:36 am

“You can say that again, Mr. Bradley,” Janice replied.
“Heck of a coincidence,” he said, nodding gravely.

July 7, 2013 1:40 am

A. Scott says:
July 7, 2013 at 1:34 am”
You are correct. The first was in 2008, London Heathrow. Iced fuel lines, all passengers walked away.

July 7, 2013 1:47 am

BBC interviewed an eyewitness about 90 minutes ago (BBC World Service-Weekend). This man said he and his friends saw the train hurtling down the hill towards the town at around 100 km (60 mi) an hour. He screamed to his friends to run like hell for safety. The man mused that it didn’t make sense that the conductor would not have secured the brakes on the parked train at the top of the hill, and if I am remembering the radio report correctly, said that he had heard subsequently that the train wasn’t braked. Other reports said that the conductor was signing off for another conductor/driver to take over. My question, then, is, how soon after the first guy left the train did the runaway action happen? If it wasn’t braked, then did it roll away immediately, and if so, wouldn’t the first conductor notice it? Did it happen an hour after the first conductor parked the train? When? This is either driver error or sabotage, that’s all it can be. We just have to wait for the investigation to finish.

July 7, 2013 1:57 am

Janice, I assume your comment was held in moderation… funny, since you’re welcome to come visit. We’ll find some wine… lol
Anyway, watching the SFO coverage today I’m not thinking pilot error. My prediction is that when all the facts are out the pilot will be seen as a hero for bringing it in with whatever issue the plane had. We’ll see. It’s purely conjecture on my part.
My friend who drives for CP Rail tells me there’s no big secret getting a loco started, the info is freely available online and even in a manual in the cab. He also told me that, as I’m sure most people won’t be surprised by, that often safety procedures are not followed. I still think if we find out some anti-oil activist did this it wouldn’t surprise many. But I think it’s more likely driver error. Again, purely conjecture on my part.

July 7, 2013 2:03 am

In Britain we are currently remmember the 25 year aniversary of the Piper Alpha oil Disater .167 killed cost billions and i heard argued actually caused the 1990s reccession.
Suppose the Enviromentalists are making much play that renewable energy is safer than fossil fuel.Unfortunatley you need fossil fuel to back up renewables.
If the politicians realised that fossil fuel is not some dirty little shameful secret industry they are desperatly trying to get rid of.They would properly invest in it and spend on inproved safety.

stan stendera
July 7, 2013 2:09 am

Very good Mr. Willis!!! Too early to tell about sabotage, but anything, and I mean ANYTHING is possible with green fanatics The one saving grace about the fanatics is they don’t see or comprehend they are harming their own cause. But they are stupid .

July 7, 2013 2:22 am

As it happens, last night I met a mechanical engineer whose speciality was energy infrastructure development, and he has been deeply involved in renewables over the last few years (as one would imagine). It was good opportunity to grill someone involved in the area regarding the various issues we encounter regarding renewable energy. He has just accepted a job developing energy infrastructure in Africa.
And, as is so often the way, his view was quite nuanced. The main difficulty both in terms of cost, and politics, is what he called “t-lines”. The transport of electricity. He emphasised there is no one size fits all best solution for each situation. Interestingly, he pointed out that the cheapest form of energy from a new build perspective, is off-shore wind, and there are solutions to handle dips and peaks in demand and production, which are improving all the time with new technology. It seems the most important thing from a cost effective view, is keeping your energy source and point of delivery as close as possible.
I asked him about natural gas, but he said that depending on the location it isn’t always the cheapest or most practical solution. Another thing he stressed is that when people propose large power plants they rarely factor in the costs of decommissioning – a problem in particular with nuclear. He wasn’t aware of the potential of thorium liquid salt, and fusion is too far away yet for it to concern him. He asked, “well if TLS is commercially viable why hasn’t it been done?”. My reply to that was that the existing uranium technology and supply infrastructure still dominates, and the revisiting of thorium is fairly recent and will take time before a commercial venture is proposed. But I don’t really know for sure, and it remains a good question.

Mr Green Genes
July 7, 2013 2:34 am

From the local paper linked in the original article:-
The president and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train was parked uphill of Lac-Megantic before the incident.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” Edward Burkhardt told The Canadian Press.
“But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
Burkhardt, who indicated he was mystified by the disaster, said the train was parked because the engineer had finished his run.

During my time working in the UK railway industry I had the good fortune of meeting Ed Burkhardt when he was in charge of the UK’s biggest railfreight operator. He’s a good guy and knows his stuff. I’m sure that the company will get to the bottom of this.
This is the first time there has ever been an article on WUWT on a subject I know something about so, for what it’s worth, here’s my take.
It’s clear to me that the brakes weren’t on (applied) properly for the train to run away. I am as certain as I can be that the braking system will consist of the locomotives pumping air through pipes to each wagon to charge up air reservoirs. When the pressure is at the right level the wagon’s brakes will be released. Therefore, with no air being pumped down the pipe, the brakes should be hard on. It is therefore probable that the locomotive(s) were attached when the train ran away since it would require multiple failures on individual wagons before the mass of the train overcame the resistance of the remainder and rolled away. That also presupposes that the train was ‘parked’ on a slope which might be the case if there is nowhere else to stop for the crew change but is not good practice and should be avoided if at all possible.
If I’m correct that the locomotives were attached, there are two obvious possibilities. Firstly, the brakes were never applied and the locomotives were left running. The incoming crew then simply walked away leaving the train in a highly dangerous state. That would be the height of incompetence, and a breach of many operating instructions, and can probably be discounted.
There is always the possibility that the locos were left running with the brakes applied imperfectly, allowing the pressure to buid up very slowly, releasing the wagons’ brakes some time later. Alternatively, if the brakes were applied properly but the locos were left running (which may have been the case if they were manned at all times during the changeover), or, as has been suggested by a few posters here, were illegally restarted by a malicious act, then you are in the realms of sabotage. With the locos running, just release the brakes normally and you have a run away. There is, of course, the possibility of the same kind of multiple failure as I described in the paragraph above, but that is as unlikely with the locos attached as without.
I have discounted the possibility that the train was “unfitted” i.e. had no piped braking system but relied on the locos’ brakes for stopping and would then have required the crew to manually operate brakes on each individual wagon when ‘parking’ the train. It is inconceivable to me that such a system would be allowed at all nowadays, and certainly not on a large train with a highly hazardous cargo.
One further point. A couple of posters have mentioned that the train was seen to be on fire before it crashed. If the brakes were partially off but still rubbing, the friction would quickly have led to increased heat sufficient to ignite any grease around the axle and possibly in the axle box itself (depending on the design of the bogies). I’ve seen quite a few flaming axle boxes on freight wagons in the UK over the years caused by dragging brakes and I know how hot they can get.

July 7, 2013 2:50 am

Mr Green Genes says:
July 7, 2013 at 2:34 am

Thanks. Always good to have an expert’s opinion.

July 7, 2013 3:01 am

“Mr Green Genes says:
July 7, 2013 at 2:34 am
I’ve seen quite a few flaming axle boxes on freight wagons in the UK over the years caused by dragging brakes and I know how hot they can get.”
I have seen smoking, but not flaming, axle boxes and brakes here in Australia on intercity commuter trains. It’s easy to detected smoking/overheating brakes, they have a very distinctive smell. Raised the issue with the station master but he didn’t seem too bothered. So much for the safety of passengers!

Gene Selkov
July 7, 2013 3:09 am

In Russia, in the old days (as well as now, it appears) if there was a locomotive attached to a train, there would be two men sitting in it at all times, until the other two men came aboard to replace them. They could only sign out and leave with the new crew at the controls. Even so, they’ve had runaway train accidents, although those were due to system failures en route.

stan stendera
July 7, 2013 3:18 am

It never ceases to amaze me the depth of WUWT readers and commenters. Here we have a train accident in Canada and Mr. Green Genes comes forward to set us straight. One wonders at the depth of CGW sites. You go Mr. Green Genes.

Claude Harvey
July 7, 2013 3:27 am

Willis, I know you understand the following when you think about it, but many do not. I point it out in order to distinguish the enormous difference between what an electric power grid does and what pipelines and tanker cars do.
Technically, in a synchronous power system the electric power lines do not transfer energy, storable or otherwise. They transfer “work”. A power line should be thought of as a long shaft with a driving engine on one end and a driven load on the other. Power produced (force over time) on one end always must equal power consumed on the other. Only if that driven load is something like a pumped-storage plant, where the transferred work is converted into potential or some other form of energy, can energy said to have been transferred from one place and stored in another.
Matching instantaneous generation exactly to instantaneous load while holding system frequency steady is a delicate dance every electric utility performs every second of every day.

Robert Scott
July 7, 2013 3:32 am

Although I didn’t adopt the “It must be sabotage” view when I read this, I did wonder which side would make the most capital out of it. Despite the prevailing opinions on this thread that (if sabotage) it must have been the greens, I think the pro-pipeline lobby has more to gain. The accident shows that moving such cargoes by rail makes accidents and sabotage more likely, thereby reinforcing the contention that pipelines are safer, let alone less intrusive, expensive and damaging to the environment.

July 7, 2013 3:44 am

Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, I don’t think I’ve ever seen proof of the pro-business faction indulging in chess like terrorist attacks. On the other hand the Greens have a long history of using destructive means to get their point across. Not enough information to make any assumptions, but it would not surprise me in the least if this was some sort of sabotage that went too far.

Les Johnson
July 7, 2013 3:50 am

Rail car traffic is up 35% over last year in this report. Mostly due to rail shipments of oil from the Bakken deposits in North Dakota. It has since gone to over 50%.
Also note Warren Buffet’s involvement, and that Buffet opposed the Keystone pipeline.
Buffet and Carl Icahn both have a stake in railroads, and thus in stopping pipelines.
As an added bonus, it’s a bit funny that one tank car manufacturer shut down a wind generation factory, to build rail cars.

Les Johnson
July 7, 2013 3:53 am

And it deosn’t end therte. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who opposes the KXL pipeline, has a 100 million dollar investment in a compeititor, Kinder Morgan. KM is currently expanding its pipeline from Alberta to the pacific, and is a direct compeitor for KXL clients.

July 7, 2013 3:56 am

Reblogged this on pdx transport.

July 7, 2013 4:30 am

With the derailment in Lac Megantic Canada, I would suspect that the locomotives were left idling and that the locomotive cab was locked. It is unlikely this is a case of sobotage, that the brakes were improperly set though their is a remote possibility of mechanical failure. In a situation like this one of the rail car brakes were also supposed to be manually set as a safeguard. As for the photo circulating around that shows a locomotive with fire coming out of the stack, it is unlikely this is a photo of the derailed train, that these older type GE locomotives sometimes have firey exhaust from the turbocharger (they belch fire). There is a curve in town and this is where the train derailed. It is unfortunate, in that Lac Megantic is pretty area and that this situation will cause debate about the safety of rail transport for oil as well as potentially bankrupting the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railroad and on whose tracks the train derailed.

July 7, 2013 4:43 am

CodeTech says:
July 7, 2013 at 1:57 am
This train would have entered Maine and gone through my service (jurisdiction) area when I served as Fire Chief back in the early 2000’s. Knowing the tension between those who want Keystone and others who want the Maritimes and Northeast pipeline, (and those who finance them), I recall how eco terrorists have harassed logging companies in the region and conclude that Code Tech may be right.

Doug Huffman
July 7, 2013 4:45 am

BLEVE was demonstrated, at USN firefighting school, by igniting a barrel of fuel oil, letting it come to a full boil and then plunging a pint of water held on the end of a long pole. Very impressive. Within the week, we could walk into the flaming trainer, splash the burning oil away from us, breathe the fresh air entrained in the firehose water and extinguish huge fires.

Paul Coppin
July 7, 2013 4:54 am

While I appreciate the discussion of the unfortunate events as they occurred, I think Willis’ opening premise is misplaced, and represents .the “step back” from reality that is characterizing the 21st century. Life is inherently dangerous. No one on this planet, nor the planet itself, comes with a guaranteed mean time to failure before expiration.. We assume risk based on our personal sense of survival and control of our immediate environment. Our perceptions in this regard have always been somewhat egotistical – its the evolutionary means that keeps us exploring, but its only indirectly rooted in actuarial reality. If life risks really mattered to us , none of us would drive, live in cold climates, on coastal plains and flood zones, on fault lines and beside volcanoes, nuclear plants and religious fanatics.
We can act to mitigate risk, but risk is never zero. Acceptance of risk and the understanding that there will be a “cleanup in aisle 3” from time to time is the only choice there is.
Uncharacteristically, Willis is indulging in some handwringing here. Enough of that comes from the ideologically left side of our society. This isn’t to say that mitigation isn’t of beneficial interest; of course it is, but there is big difference between perceived risk and actuarial risk, and over time, we’re increasing our spent capital more on perceived risk than on actuarial risk.
As population increases, the frequency of “risk-managment failures” will increase, and in some instances, actuarial risk will increase too. Pessimistic as this sounds, its the cost of our species growth, and it is inevitable. The choices that are coming will focus increasingly on risk benefit, and the fight will ramp up over who gets to assume the risk, and for whom the benefit accrues.

July 7, 2013 4:59 am
Paul Coppin
July 7, 2013 4:59 am

The other thing about this that is curious is that this is third major train event in as many days. While not being an active conspiratorialist, given that we (Cdn officials) arrested a few ideologically handicapped individuals a month or so back planning a similar event in the same part of the country, seems like it might be more than a co-incidence, something I’m certain the official risk-mitigators will be looking at.

July 7, 2013 5:00 am

This is very interesting – despite pressure relief valves, they only work when a sustained flame is boiling propane and hence keeping the whole tank cool. When the flame is above the liquid the metal can get hot enough to fail and allow the tank to rupture. Keep in mind the pressure relief valve is designed to keep the tank at a safe pressure for normal to moderately extreme conditions and that it cannot be designed to keep propane at zero relative pressure. Well unless if it opens and stays open. That might be a good idea if the valve points up and is not in an enclosed space.

While hunting that back down, I came across a simple sort of idiot with a camping propane canister.

Doug Huffman
July 7, 2013 5:03 am

The recent SFO incident recalls the 1968 Japan Airlines event, when a DC-8 landed three miles short of one of these runways due to the pilot misreading his instruments. Runways 28L/R are shown with elevation 13 feet, runways 19L/R are 10 feet and 9 feet respectively. By the images published, I believe Asiana 214 is at the end of 28L.

Doug Huffman
July 7, 2013 5:07 am


July 7, 2013 5:07 am

bazza says:
July 7, 2013 at 12:57 am
I think it was sabotage you no what nutters the greens are.i would not put something like this past them.

I think we should calm down a little. To accuse any particular group without the slightest evidence is unethical. In addition it will only cause steeper fronts between so called “greens” and so called “global warming skeptics” and those fronts are already dangerously steep.
I think these steep fronts are very damaging to the climate research since it makes it difficult to have a civilized discussion between the parties.

July 7, 2013 5:25 am

Incidentally, two of the most iconic images of 777s on are that very plane sitting in the very spot it crashed (SFO 28L), waiting to take off, with an Emirates 777 appearing to be right on top of it. Almost eerie.

July 7, 2013 5:30 am
July 7, 2013 5:48 am

Maine protesters arrested for trying to block oil train to Canada
FAIRFIELD — Police arrested six people Thursday night after a group protesting “fracked oil” tried to block a train that was expected to pass through town by erecting a makeshift wooden scaffold on the tracks.
Authorities arrest a protester from 350 Maine and Earth First after the group blocked the railroad track crossing at Lawrence Avenue in Fairfield on Thursday night during protest of the transport of allegedly fracked oil on railroads. About 9:30 p.m., six protesters were arrested.
Michael G. Seamans / Morning Sentinel
Police name 6 arrested in Fairfield track protest
Select images available for purchase in the
Maine Today Photo Store
The scaffold, with a banner that read “Stop fracked oil. Maine earth first,” was put up to call attention to climate change and prevent about 70,000 barrels of crude oil from reaching New Brunswick, said Meaghan LaSala, one of the protest’s organizers and a member of 350 Maine, a group that’s concerned about climate change.
“We believe the moment we’re in, in terms of climate change, is a dramatic one and it calls for dramatic action,” said LaSala, 26, a Portland resident who works in Unity.
About 30 protesters gathered at the intersection of Route 201 and Route 139, many of them wearing white in an effort to look like workers at an oil spill, bearing signs that read, “Trains for people, not oil.”
Police closed both highways because the protesters refused to move. Police told the crowd by megaphone that blocking the rails and roads is illegal.
No train had arrived by 9:15 p.m.
At 9:40 p.m., the protesters who manned the scaffold had been taken into custody. The scaffold fell shortly afterward, and additional protesters, who were not blocking the tracks, cheered the arrested people.
Police were dismantling the scaffold at 9:50 p.m. Protesters were in the area but no longer blocking the tracks, and were speaking with police.
Trains carry crude oil through Maine from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, where it is “fracked” — extracted by blasting chemicals deep into the ground at high pressure to release the oil from shale rock.
LaSala said the process pollutes air and water in surrounding communities. She said the protest Thursday was part of a national movement called Fearless Summer, with a goal to expose the dangers of extreme forms of energy extraction.
The protesters’ chants called for an end to fracking in North Dakota and explained their reasons for the protest action.
Officers from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department, Maine State Police, the Fairfield Police Department and other law enforcement agencies responded to the protest.
Note: Earth First damaged logging equipment and facilities in Maine a few years ago. Law enforcement had to work overtime watching facilities.

Mr Green Genes
July 7, 2013 5:55 am

Further information – this from the BBC
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train had five locomotive engines and 73 cars filled with light crude oil, and was parked in the village of Nantes – about 7km (four miles) from Lac-Megantic – during an overnight driver shift-change, a company spokesman told Canada’s La Presse newspaper.
The railway’s chairman, Edward Burhardt, quoted by CBC, said an engineer had parked the train and put the brakes on “properly” before going to a local hotel for the night.
The cars filled with fuel somehow became uncoupled, causing them to roll downhill into the town and derail, said the spokesman, Joe McGonigle.
“It seems that the brakes were tight on locomotives,” Mr McGonigle told La Presse. “We found the locomotives higher up, half a mile (800m) away.”

That implies that the train started to run away with the locos attached. The train then split somewhere down the track which should have caused an emergency brake application. It looks as though this probably happened since the locos were found 800 metres from the derailment with the brakes hard on. Once the train split, if the systems were working properly, the brakes would also have come on hard on the wagons. However, with the best will in the world, 73 loaded wagons going down an incline are going to take a long time to stop, even with a full emergency brake application.
For comparison (and from memory!) in the UK an emergency brake application on a 500t passenger train travelling at 125 mph on level track will cause the train to stop in around 800m. This train will have been many times heavier and travelling down hill so it’s no surprise that it was still travelling after 800m. Also, if I’m right, that lends a little more credence to my supposition that any train fire could have been started by overheating brakes.
geoff (July 7, 2013 at 4:30 am) suggests that in a situation like that “one of the rail car brakes were also supposed to be manually set as a safeguard”. That is highly probable but one set of wagon brakes would not hold 73 fully loaded tankers on an incline. That set would simply have overheated sooner.
Incidentally, it looks as though it came to grief at a set of points (switches to you guys in the US/Canada) according to a little diagram on the BBC website. Google seems to confirm that there are points etc. in the area of the derailment.

July 7, 2013 6:18 am

Keystone XL will be approved when we get a President in the White House who cares about the future of America and not actively trying to bring her down. Too bad what is happening in Egypt wouldn’t happen here.

Gail Combs
July 7, 2013 6:24 am

Janice Moore says: @ July 7, 2013 at 12:55 am
“I suspect this is more than an unfortunate accident.” [P. Bradley 11:30PM, 7/6/13]
I do too….
Only a person familiar with starting locomotives can start one once it is properly secured. Accidental engine departure is virtually impossible. Unless there was some highly improbable (but, of course, possible) mechanical failure (including the throttle stuck open) or the engineer was grossly incompetent
(“Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine”, perhaps? — that will be quickly known, for the Transportation Safety Commission(?) will have had the man give them a sample to drug test ASAP),
it almost certainly was deliberate…..
To add to that, Do not forget that PETA will have recruits go ‘Undercover’ to work in the targeted industry so this method for gaining the required information is KNOWN. Activists also target government bureaucracy, for example my local USDA inspector (a veterinarian) is an Animal Rights Activist. She has shutdown every single petting farm in her area that I know of and actually told the operators that was her intent.
So yes, my first thought was also SABOTAGE. – The FBI vs. the Monkeywrenchers : The Eco-Guerrillas of Earth First!

July 7, 2013 6:29 am

It’s awful hard for a modern locomotive to just “run away”. Dead-man switches should prevent it. But there it is.
Hard to understand.

July 7, 2013 6:36 am

Pipelines are the obvious answer. Well, obvious to anyone other than a so-called “Progressive.”

July 7, 2013 6:41 am

“geoff says:
July 7, 2013 at 4:30 am”
Two stroke “Deltics” being a classic example of “clag” and eventual fire on start up.

mike g
July 7, 2013 6:50 am

Willis, check you math. I have that 820 bbl of oil equivalent is approximately equal to 1 ton of TNT, not a kiloton.

Mr Green Genes
July 7, 2013 7:01 am

Gail Combs says:
July 7, 2013 at 6:24 am

Gail, you’d probably be surprised at how easy it is to start a locomotive, and to drive one. All you need is a key to get in and the appropriate piece of equipment to switch it on. Keys are very easily found. Driving it competently is a different matter, however. (I could drive one but couldn’t possibly stop it in the right place!)
As to your supposition of sabotage, of course it can’t be ruled out. Malicious operation will overcome any safety systems. As a non-conspiracy theorist, however, I personally put it down the list. I have to say that incompetent operation seems to me to be more likely, especially if there was a minor technical malfunction as well.
beng says:
July 7, 2013 at 6:29 am

You point re the ‘dead-man’ is accurate as far as it goes but a fully loaded 73 wagon freight train with brakes slowly bleeding off on an incline would overcome the effect of the device.
Incidentally, in the UK, it is no longer a handle which the driver has to hold in position. This changed after a driver suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the handle. What we use nowadays is a foot operated switch which has to be pressed and released every minute. It cannot be overridden by putting a heavy object on it so it’s safer than thehandle. I don’t know what type of device was in use in this case.

Mr Green Genes
July 7, 2013 7:04 am

Patrick says:
July 7, 2013 at 6:41 am
Deltics – lovely locos.
I once saw an HST power car in flames at Reading Station. Some incompetent was going to move it to the local depot until it was pointed out that that was also the loco fuelling point. Cue hurried change of plan!

Tom J
July 7, 2013 7:04 am

I don’t know if this might be too far off topic but Obama and Buffett, or as I call them, the firm of Obama, Buffett, & Associates (sarc), was mentioned so perhaps these thoughts are appropriate.
Most of the founders of this country were wealthy; either inherited or self-made. When, in the Declaration of Independence, they pledged to support the ideals expressed with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, well, it was the gosh darned truth. That was quite unlike our current political class which, instead, enriches itself in the support of their, shall we say, personal ideals.
Buffett’s purchase of BNSF always looks to have been very conveniently timed. And, needless to say, his purchase of Goldman Sachs looks to have been very conveniently timed. I mean, who would’ve thought such a savvy investor would’ve bought the then bankrupt financial giant, and during a recession and financial meltdown. Ah, but then the taxpayer bailout came. How fortuitous.
Perhaps Obama meant something else when he elicited those famous words last year, “You didn’t build that.” Something he could not consciously comprehend. Perhaps he was talking about Buffett. And perhaps he was talking about himself.

July 7, 2013 7:43 am

Not only Keystone, but reversing Line 9 and approving Gateway through British Columbia. It is ironic that US billionaire Foundations are flooding Canadian “charities” and activist groups, including buying off First Nations against the pipelines. Incredible also that freshly reelected BC Premier Clark is against the Gateway and is now promoting more carbon tax BS.
The tragedy of this oil derailment should be a warning to these people in Canada and the US, that victims will hold them responsible.

July 7, 2013 7:48 am

Buffett bought Moody’s to downrate the credit of companies he wanted to acquire.
If the US would let our high-energy, low-sulfur coal be exported to China, there would be plenty of energy transport by rail to go around, even with the Keystone pipeline extension. But no, coal trains are “death trains” to the raving lunatic Hansenites.

July 7, 2013 7:51 am

Dumping burning ethanol into the river not an ecological problem.
Investigators at site of Pa. train crash, ethanol tankers burning
Posted: 10/21/06 at 11:17 pm
NEW BRIGHTON, Pa. — The blast shook houses, woke neighbors and sent a fireball into the night sky.
Word spread quickly that several ethanol tanker cars had exploded after two dozen train cars derailed while crossing a half-mile bridge spanning the Beaver River late Friday.
Though no one was injured, residents of this former industrial town were evacuated because of concerns about new explosions. Federal investigators arrived Saturday morning to begin an investigation, even as the tanker cars continued to burn.
Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Norfolk Southern and Beaver County were determining whether to let the fire burn itself out or extinguish it, said Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
New Brighton borough manager Larry Morley said that the explosion shook his house as if “lighting struck in the front yard” and that a fireball rose in the air.
Barbara Huddy, 41, was asleep at her home about five blocks away when the 24 cars tumbled off the tracks, some to the river and banks below.
“It woke me up,” said Huddy, a United Airlines customer service employee. “It was bad. It was really frightening.”
More than 50 residents stayed overnight at the New Brighton Middle School, said John Stubbs, executive director of a Red Cross chapter. About 150 others checked in with authorities at the school Saturday morning.
The derailed cars were in the train’s midsection, and nine caught fire on the bridge in New Brighton, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
The train — 83 tanker cars pulled by three locomotives — was traveling from Chicago to New Jersey. Sumwalt could not say how fast it was traveling. The condition of the bridge was not clear Saturday afternoon.
Ten NTSB experts were on the scene, but they did not expect to inspect the crash site until the fire was out. They will investigate mechanical issues, human factors, track and engineering issues, and the emergency response, among other things, Sumwalt said.

Coach Springer
July 7, 2013 8:04 am

The presence of incompetence or worse notwithstanding (what was that arrest for similar plans, Paul Coppin?), thanks for pointing out the financial aspect of the politics. It could use some more publicity/awareness because it is interfering with doing something that is better for everyone except crusaders who want to kill oil more than anything and the specific companies that get left behind. After all, if they just want to stop the pipeline, they would develop the Saudi Arabia of the Unitied States – California.

July 7, 2013 8:10 am

As usual, here Eschenbach provides dozens of blanket statements with no citations.
Oh wait…I forgot. Providing citations does not apply to Willis the Wonderful.

July 7, 2013 8:12 am

More regarding earth first.,5760659
Vandals started targeting Plum Creek’s offices after the company unveiled plans last spring to develop thousands of acres around Moosehead Lake. But the attacks reached a new level Monday night.
Vandals damaged three private homes and three office buildings in five Maine communities. They splattered orange paint and spray-painted “scum creek” and other messages on some of the buildings. They also poured a foul-smelling chemical and left parts of a raccoon carcass and animal feces at some targets. And they threw rocks through the windows of the home where Plum Creek’s top Maine official lives with his family.
Maine State Police and the FBI stepped in to coordinate the investigation, and state officials, environmentalists, business leaders and others loudly condemned the actions.
“All they are is terrorists,” said Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville. “We’ve had cases in the past, but nothing like this.”
Davis was a state trooper in 1990 when extremists hammered long metal spikes into trees and logs in an effort to stop logging of an old-growth timber tract near the Big Reed preserve west of Ashland. The spikes made it difficult and dangerous to saw the wood, and forced loggers to scan with metal detectors.
In 1998, protesters spray-painted graffiti on buildings at the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill to draw attention to dioxin pollution.
About five years ago, vandals damaged Maine fish and game clubs, and tried to blow one up. There also are periodic reports of damaged logging equipment in northern Maine, said Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation.
But, McGowan said, those acts were “nothing as scary as this, where people’s homes were targets.”
No group has claimed responsibility, police said. That’s not unusual, according to Arnold, who works with the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and tracks eco-terrorism around the country.
Groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front will sometimes take credit, but often do not. They are the leaders of the trend and may well be linked to what’s happening in Maine, he said.
Earth First!, which took credit for spiking the trees 15 years ago and held a protest at Plum Creek offices this summer, is less likely to be involved in the vandalism, Arnold said. The group decided years ago to focus on civil disobedience and leave the criminal activity to ELF, he said.
ELF and ALF are loosely organized. Their actions are led by itinerant activists who travel the country and stop in different states to recruit young sympathizers and then attack a corporation, he said.
Targeting the homes of employees and company lawyers already is commonplace in other parts of the country, especially out West in places like California, Arnold said. And eco-terrorism also has become more dangerous and violent in parts of the country, with buildings burned to protest development and Hummers burned to object to the practices of automakers.
“Arson is pretty much the signature,” he said.

July 7, 2013 8:13 am

I would say instead of the “railroad barons” that it’s the “Wall Street” barons that are pulling the strings. Buffet doesn’t give a damn about railroads per se, only about the money. He’d destroy his railroad in an instant if he thought it would increase his Berkshire stock. It’s been blatantly obvious about who’s been pulling the strings in this and the former administration (and even farther back).
As far as transporting dangerous fuels go, the one that scares me are the LNG ships. If one of those went up I wonder what the equivalent kilotons of TNT t would be?

Gail Combs
July 7, 2013 8:17 am

Paul Coppin says:
July 7, 2013 at 4:54 am
While I appreciate the discussion of the unfortunate events….
I usually sum it up as ‘Life is Lethal’™
Too bad those with the Bambi Syndrome never seem to figure that out.
Pointman has an excellent essay that drives home that point.

July 7, 2013 8:45 am

Regarding brakes–on locomotives/wagons and highway trucks they are always “applied”–it takes air pressure to release them.
This is the opposite of how automobile brakes are configured–if they required power to pressurize and release, it would be safer as far as runaways, but makes it very difficult to manually push one out of the way or to tow it to a garage for repairs.
For trucks and locomotives/wagons, it’s safer to have brakes applied as the default.

July 7, 2013 8:46 am

A unit train of Bakken crude leaves BNSF’s Minot, ND yard at 6 AM every morning, this unit train alone makes BNSF and it’s investors .25M$ each day (or 91.25 M$ / yr.) that’s big enough to be a line item in Buffets annual budget. It would be interesting to see a map of the route Buffet’s Oil travels by rail as the only direct north/south rail lines in the US are on the east and west coasts. But it’s clear from John’s comment at 5:48 above, that some is routed through Maine.
Obama wants infrastructure? That’s easy, approve Keystone and widen the the Right of Way to include a central continental north south rail line, and a 4 lane highway from Houston to Edmonton. Now that would be a legacy.

R. de Haan
July 7, 2013 8:47 am

We have all the technology to prevent a BLEVE in a tank in a pool fire, no matter if the tank contains oil, gasoline or liquid petrol gas. The answer is filling the tank with an aluminum mesh called Explocontrol. The mesh only takes 1.5% of the tank volume and it prevents the sloshing of the liquid so you no longer need slosh barriers. We should not only have this material in rail tanks but also our road trucks, even our reserve cannister and our BBQ gas bottle. This solution has been tested many times but nobody wants to pay the price despite the fact that it is a really cheap and effective solution.
Yes, pipelines are safer than trains but also pipelines should be protected with this material.

Gail Combs
July 7, 2013 8:48 am

john says: @ July 7, 2013 at 8:12 am
More regarding earth first…..
Thanks John.
It only takes a couple of nutters to do a lot of damage and unfortunately there are a lot of nutters around now a days thanks to the brainwashing in our schools. My tiny business was targeted seven times in 3 consecutive years until they succeeded in harming over 200 people and killing two. A friend of mine in the same business was blamed even though the facts say he couldn’t have been responsible without ‘Help’. It has been over ten years and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them now that the target bill has become law. The last time I was targeted was within five days of them hitting the ‘Jackpot’ and making national headlines.
That is why I smell sabotage as a possibility.
Note: Sabotage was never considered by the authorities but the facts rule out the scapegoat (my friend) as the cause. (Multimillion dollar lawsuits still going on so I can not say more.)

July 7, 2013 8:53 am

Well, well, well. Look who’s here paid by Big Oil.

R. de Haan
July 7, 2013 8:57 am

P.s Explocontrol is called Technokontrol today, see

July 7, 2013 9:02 am

Very sad turn of events and dramatic…three confirmed dead so far.

The less dramatic seem not to be so note worthy; “oil spills everywhere”.

Unfortunately the previous is not comprehensive.
Please excuse the overlap…

If only B_P was considered a division of the US military than all info related would be t0p secr3t.

Oh Canada our …

David Riser
July 7, 2013 9:03 am

Mike G.
Willis is pretty good at math:
ton of TNT 4.184X10^9 joules, Kiloton of TNT 4.184X10^12 joules, barrel of crude 6.1×10^9 joules so
820 X 6.1×10^9 = 5002 x10^9 = 5.002X10^12 which is slightly more than a kiloton of TNT.
680 x 6.1

Luther Wu
July 7, 2013 9:05 am

Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:10 am
Prove him wrong…

R. de Haan
July 7, 2013 9:07 am

Gail Combs says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:48 am
If you don’t believe in death trains, accidents like this could change your mind. However accidents involving trains, trucks, aircraft, boats, tankers, but also storage systems tank farms and pipelines filled with carbon fuels always pose a risk. we have to secure it and we can if we stop wasting our money with entirely useless “sustainable power generation” like wind, solar and bio.

Luther Wu
July 7, 2013 9:07 am

Luther Wu says:
July 7, 2013 at 9:05 am
Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:10 am
Prove him wrong…
Let me add- prove him wrong or STFU. No one is interested in your petty little tiny opinion.

July 7, 2013 9:11 am

At the time of Buffett’s purchase of BN, financial commenters were scratching their heads at the size of the premium (over the market price) he paid for it (about 25%, IIRC) and the tepid prospects for BN. It’s likely that Buffett had an edge–inside information. It’s not hard to put 2 and 2 together in this case, now. It’ll be lots clearer if Obama rejects the pipeline expansion.

July 7, 2013 9:11 am

At the time of Buffett’s purchase of BN, financial commenters were scratching their heads at the size of the premium (over the market price) he paid for it (about 25%, IIRC) and the tepid prospects for BN. It’s likely that Buffett had an edge–inside information. It’s not hard to put 2 and 2 together in this case, now. It’ll be lots clearer if Obama rejects the pipeline expansion.

July 7, 2013 9:13 am

I believe Buffet’s investment in rail was based on a view that ,over the longer term, energy prices would increase and rail would have an economic advantage over truck based transport of goods. Plus the rail assets were priced at a level that provided a good return on investment.
It is worth remembering Buffet also owns energy assets, including pipelines, through Mid American.
His most signiicant investments are in insurance and re-insurance, so he has an interest in ‘risk’. It is not in his wider interests to have high risk goods on his railways, when he could invest in a lower risk pipeline.

R. de Haan
July 7, 2013 9:19 am

Sabotage?: I m quite sure sabotage happens but form all the big accidents that happened over the past 30 years involving the carbon fuel chain sabotage simply wasn’t the cause.
I really doubt if sabotage was the cause of this train accident. I didn’t look into the technical specs of the locomotives involved but in the past similar locs got their brakes unlocked because of vibrations or maintenance issues. We should change the regulations and simply don’t allow the engineer to leave the locomotive when the engine is still running. We don’t allow this with cars, we don’t allow this with aircraft and we don’t allow this with ships. Why do we allow this with trains?
It’s old habits and old traditions that are in for a review and some common sense.

Billy Liar
July 7, 2013 9:20 am

Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:10 am
As usual, here Eschenbach provides dozens of blanket statements with no citations.
Oh wait…I forgot. Providing citations does not apply to Willis the Wonderful.

Why don’t you write your own blog? Oh, I forgot, you’ve got one.

July 7, 2013 9:46 am

Roger Sowell says: July 7, 2013 at 8:10 am
“..As usual, here Eschenbach provides dozens of blanket statements with no citations….”
As usual, here Roger Sowell is to snipe, gripe and bicker.

July 7, 2013 9:46 am

Roger Sowell, Willis did indeed pull from his memory in writing this essay. I noticed a couple of things that looked a bit off so checked them out. Willis was close enough for purposes of the essay and his conclusions. I suspect that you are jealous of Willis or you would not have called him Willis the Wonderful. Luther Wu chided you so I will refrain. Let me just suggest that if you look at the broad depth of Willis’ knowledge, the wide range of his ability to analyze situations and the speed at which he can produce essays, you may find him completely worthy of being Willis the Wonderful. I feel glad that he is a part of my life. Please give him his due.

July 7, 2013 9:58 am

alerter should have put train into emergency within 5 minutes or so of movement.

July 7, 2013 10:08 am

RockyRoad says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:45 am
Regarding brakes–on locomotives/wagons and highway trucks they are always “applied”–it takes air pressure to release them.
This is the opposite of how automobile brakes are configured–if they required power to pressurize and release, it would be safer as far as runaways, but makes it very difficult to manually push one out of the way or to tow it to a garage for repairs.
For trucks and locomotives/wagons, it’s safer to have brakes applied as the default.
not the same, trucks have compressed springs in the actuators, air holds it released, loss of air and sping rotates s-cam to apply brakes.
when a train car runs out of air in EQ reservoir the brakes are released. brake pipe in train does not work like treadle valve in truck.
drop of air (iirc initial apply is approx 12psi drop) in brake pipe causes EQ reservoir to apply same pressure to car brakes.
this is why apply brakes too often w/o recharge times can cause runaways.

John W. Garrett
July 7, 2013 10:09 am

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the blood of this disaster stains the hands of those who have irrationally opposed the Keystone XL pipeline.
That fact needs to be stated publicly and understood.

July 7, 2013 10:24 am

The train had been burning for a while before it took off and derailed.

The 73-car locomotive that devastated a wide swath of Lac-Mégantic, Que., had been ablaze in the hours before it careened off its track and exploded, according to fire officials in the lakeside tourist town and the nearby town of Nantes.
Lac-Mégantic Fire Chief Denis Lauzon and Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert told The Globe and Mail that fire crews had been dispatched to the train around 11:30 p.m. ET Friday when it was stopped in Nantes, about 12 kilometres northwest of Lac-Mégantic, in response to a fire that had broken out on board.

July 7, 2013 10:24 am

Yeah, call me a conspiracy nut, but out of all the possible causes, the one that I would bet is most likely is that it was an Obama supporting envirowhacko that released the train.

July 7, 2013 11:08 am

Number 1….this is NOT a tragedy. More people died in less time on the highways around Montreal.
Number 2…if you want to count this as a tragedy,the tragedy is that eco-nuts think transporting 100k of volitile fuel per 50k car at 50-60 mph that crosses many roads and goes through many towns,is safer than a pipeline,then that is a tragedy.
Number 3….regardless of what the company says,it was not crude.Crude does not explode like that.There was more than crude in some of those tankers.
Number 4….a parked train does not just take off and reach those speeds by itself,unless using pixie dust and unicorn farts,especially a frieght of that size,on a level grade?
Number 5….follow the money. Buffet against Tides.

July 7, 2013 11:25 am

U.S. President Obama is holding up approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project primarily due to his concern that the approval would contribute to global warming. We calculate that the approval of the Keystone project could contribute to 0.0002 °C warming in 50 years, based on incremental greenhouse gas emissions estimated by the U.S. State Department. See my article at:
and our news release July 3, 2013 at:

Gail Combs
July 7, 2013 11:35 am

Kasuha says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:53 am
Well, well, well. Look who’s here paid by Big Oil.
You mean like Warren Buffet, a key money supplier for the Obama re-election effort don’t you?
Warren Buffett /Berkshire Hathaway’s 15 Biggest Stock Holdings
Phillips 66
US Bancorp
American Express
Wells Fargo
Liberty Media (LMCA)

Liberty Media Corporation owns interests in a broad range of media, communications and entertainment businesses. Those interests include subsidiaries Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc., TruePosition, Inc. and Sirius XM Radio Inc., interests in Live Nation Entertainment, Inc., Barnes & Noble, Inc., and Charter Communications, and minority equity investments in Time Warner Inc., Time Warner Cable Inc. and Viacom Inc….

The Washington Post
(Buffett’s Berkshire Buys 29th Daily Newspaper, The Roanoke Times)
Int’l Business Machines (IBM)
Wal-Mart Stores
General Motors
DaVita (DaVita is the dialysis division of DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc., a Fortune 500® company that, through its operating divisions, provides a variety of health care services to patient populations throughout the United States)
Procter & Gamble
15 May 2013 Berkshire Hathaway has eliminated its holdings of two stocks: Archer Daniels Midland and General Dynamics
This is interesting in light of this older headline 8/04/2010 ADM profits soar 550 percent as ethanol margins improve Remember David Archibald’s post about the US corn crop….
General Dynamics is an aerospace and defense company.
Warren Buffet also just bought the Antelope Valley Solar Projects. This is the project where the government cheated people out of their homes by using zoning regs to make them tear down their homes so the land could be acquired for pennies on the dollar. link

July 7, 2013 11:37 am

on the north american continent trains use the “westinghouse airbrake system or compatibles (in the case of passenger and non interchanged rolling stock).
that is a pair of resevoirs (service and emergency) under the car are charged to ~ 115 psi with compresssed air. they are fed from a pipeline that is connected to the other cars in the train and the locomotive. the engineer does this with the locomotives whenever he is ready to move the train out onto the main line. it can take quite a while to do this. when the train line is up to pressure he performs a “standing airbrake test”. that is he applies the brakes a small amount and a person hanging around the back end of the train obseves the action. if all is proper he releases the brakes and moves off. as soon as he gets the radio message “all are moving” (remember they are running 10,000 foot trains these days) he applies the brakes again for the “running airbrake test” and observes his controls for proper operation. HE APPLIES THE BRAKES BY LOWERING THE AIR PRESSURE IN THE TRAINLINE. if the train line loses pressure the brakes throughout the train clamp onto the wheels with the full pressure of the air in the emergency resevoir.
this is a super short explanation of the operation of train brakes. it does not address independent brakes, dynamic or hand brakes which are horses of another color.
runaway trains have happened for more than 200 years on the railroads. the people that run them are not dumb and have taken many many more steps to combat them than a bunch of amateurs on a sunday afternoon can speculate on. they have had to many people killed by defective brakes and runaways not to be serious about it. it is quite common for teen age boys to assist “tied down trains” to run away (you see it in the trade press about every two years)
i believe this to be sabatoge. remember the duck anthology. if it walks like a duck, flaps like a duck, waddles like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck its probably a duck no matter what a greenie trys to tell you.

Gail Combs
July 7, 2013 11:52 am

R. de Haan says: @ July 7, 2013 at 9:07 am
Gail Combs …
If you don’t believe in death trains, accidents like this could change your mind. However accidents involving trains, trucks, aircraft, boats, tankers, but also storage systems tank farms and pipelines filled with carbon fuels always pose a risk….
Believe me I am a chemist and very well aware of that given I have seen four plant accidents(fires and explosions) from organic chemicals and just missed a fifth because I was on vacation. I have been known to go after plant managers and even CEOs about safety hazards. I even go after grocery stores that do not have the helium tanks properly chained to a wall or bench.
I have also driven semi’s so I know about the fail safe that will not let you move if anything is wrong with the air brake system.
Stopping on a hill with a load of flammables is going to make the driver extra cautious unless he is on chemicals or very very tired. Even then you are going to go through the automatic routine since it is ingrained, sort of like waking up from deep thought to find yourself in your driveway at the end of a long day with no memory of how you got there.

a jones
July 7, 2013 12:26 pm

PK says:
July 7, 2013 at 11:37 am
Yes Sir you are correct. variants of the Westinghouse system are pretty well universal today. although the British stuck to their vacuum system well into the late 20th century. They also, uniquely I believe, ran unbraked [no continuous automatic brake {CAB}] coal trains of up to 800 tonnes or so until the 1970s: these relied solely on the locomotive brakes backed up by heavy brake vans. Tor prevent the dangers of runaways on ascending gradients they used catch points at the bottom of the hill to derail the runaways if the train couplings broke.
The problem with any pneumatic system is that once the train is parked there will be leakage eventually causing the brakes, CAB, to release. To prevent runaway some kind of mechanical brake is usually used but as you say runaways still happen if these fail for whatever reason.
ATTN Willis
I too was surprised at your calculation of energy release but it is correct. That is because you are using bbl, a volume measure, against weight, kilotons. In fact the weight of oil depending on what it is. is of the order of 140 tonnes or so. perhaps a seventh of the weight of TNT for the same energy release. That is hardly surprising, any explosive has to carry it’s own oxidant and so weighs much more than a fuel which gets it’s oxygen from the atmosphere.
Hence the development of liquid fuel bombs some thirty years ago which spray the fuel into the air before detonation giving a devastating air blast for their weight.
Kindest Regards

mike g
July 7, 2013 12:47 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
July 7, 2013 at 10:55 am
mike g says:
July 7, 2013 at 6:50 am
Willis, check you math. I have that 820 bbl of oil equivalent is approximately equal to 1 ton of TNT, not a kiloton.
Seemed high to me too when I first calculated it, so I checked it several ways.
Several sources give 4.184E+9 joules per tonne of TNT.
Several sources give 5.8E+9 joules per bbl of oil equivalent.
And UnitJuggler does the conversion directly here, just put in 820 barrels.
Of course, the destructive power of the TNT is much, much greater since it all detonates in milliseconds … either one is still a lot of power, though.
You are correct sir. I was checking your numbers because it seemed high to me, too. I actually have the same numbers on my spreadsheet that you had and somehow concluded you were off by a factor of 1000 even though I came up with a number identical to yours.

July 7, 2013 1:05 pm

Comparing Warren Buffet to a 19th century railroad baron, while entertaining, is a little fanciful. The balance of power today is surely reversed – Buffet was kissing Obama’s finger by donating to his campaign. Obama had his own reasons for blocking the pipeline anyway.
And maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad about this cosy little arrangement. As Willis notes, if the pipeline isn’t built, then the oil will just have to come in by rail. In which case, it’s proabably just as well that the railroad is under the control of someone with the commercial savvy of a Warren Buffet than someone with the commercial savvy of, say, a Barack Obama.
Warren Buffet didn’t vote Obama into the White House, the American people did.

July 7, 2013 1:05 pm

We just have to wait for the investigation to finish.
That will take a year, and by then the population at large won’t collectively remember and the MSM won’t care. Oh, look! Squirrel!

July 7, 2013 1:18 pm

@ Eschenbach, re general statements.
I quote from your “previous thread” that you so conveniently linked to above,
“He also doesn’t do citations. Roger does blanket statements.”
Here, the “He” that is mentioned is me. The “Roger” referred to is also me. Eschenbach was grousing, but I’m sure in a loveable way, of course, what else! that ALL of my writings are merely blanket statements with no citations, Of course, as I pointed out, Eschenbach is a liar on this point.
So, in the mind of the Great Eschenbach, it is some sort of crime for Sowell to not do citations, but to provide blanket statements. Hypocrite, Eschenbach. Hypocrite. I merely point out your hypocrisy, in your very next guest post here on WUWT.
I do agree with you on one thing, however. Your posts are highly entertaining. Thank you for waking up each morning, walking outdoors, and reporting back breathlessly on what most of us have known for a very long time. Pipelines are more economic than rail transport? Seriously? Hold the phones, I must send this along right away to all the oil companies. They will be shocked, shocked, I tell you!
What is next from the pen of the Great Eschenbach? Did the sun rise in the east? Did a wave break on the shore? Now, that’s news!
To paraphrase your own words, you just keep on entertaining those in the cheap seats. If this needs a citation, I refer interested parties to Eschenbach’s previous guest post on WUWT. There, he confesses that he writes to educate and entertain those in the cheap seats. Seriously, that’s what he said. So, now we know.

July 7, 2013 1:22 pm

loco’s separating so early on is what bugs me, only reason I can see of that is due to the independent brake being applied suddenly or the consist gaining enough speed to cause the break away from them already being applied.
alerter tossing train into emergency would cause them to apply suddenly, however I would expect it to have been parked with ID brake on but I don’t know their policy. I don’t know MM&A retainer rules either.
I am wondering if the prior fire on loco possibly damaged hoses causing a leak but seems to me it would have been seem on the res/pipe gauges.
just not enough info and everything is pure speculation at this point.

July 7, 2013 1:25 pm

I am not saying this is what happened, but it shows how the rail safety feature can fail under the right conditions.

July 7, 2013 1:42 pm

Kasuha says….
Obviously another unthinking, partly brain dead septic skience reader/activist who’s green activist “friend” let the train roll?
I say,
“Look who’s paid by big government”.
I also say to Gov’t. Beware of the monsters you create. Monsters are known to turn onto their masters and handlers.

July 7, 2013 1:50 pm

Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm

There, he confesses that he writes to educate and entertain those in the cheap seats. Seriously, that’s what he said. So, now we know.

Jeeze, Roger–NONE of us pay to belong to or utilize WUWT, so by that measure we’re ALL in the “cheap seats”.
However, that doesn’t mean we don’t learn an awful lot from those posting here, and I’ve identified and learned and laughed and cried more from Willis’ posts than anybody.
And your posts? I’ve learned nothing yet, except what to avoid.
Now please grow up, take your meds, or go away. Your choice.
Or do you want Anthony to take a vote by the readership here and see what a true concensus looks like in this comment battle?
Thanks, and have a good day, Roger. No ill will, mind you, except that which you should extinguish in yourself.
PS> You never did answer my question to you, which I posted twice, under Cooking Grandma.

July 7, 2013 1:58 pm

Roger. You are not endearing yourself to anyone. You are looking like a troll. Try bringing something to the party not just moaning about the quality of the drink provided by others.

Mr Green Genes
July 7, 2013 2:02 pm

Willis – I’ve learnt so much from people such as yourself on here. It’s nice that for once I can contribute something useful.
Roger Sowell – just don’t. You demean yourself with postings like your contributions on this thread.

July 7, 2013 2:25 pm

Check this out
Train Blockade
350 Maine and Maine Earth First coordinated a rail blockade in Fairfield, Maine on Thursday, June 27th. Trains carry fracked crude oil from the Bakken Oil fields of North Dakota, through Maine to Irving’s Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. The transport is dangerous for communities all along the rout. The rail owner, Pan Am has had two train derailments since 2012, one of which was carrying 15 cars of Bakken Crude. The Maine DEP spokesperson said the fact that so little oil spilled was “a miracle.”
Dozens demonstrated and six were arrested after refusing to leave the tracks. A crowd of local citizens gathered, many of whom expressed support for the demonstration.
350 Maine Organizer Read Brugger was one of those arrested. “Industry and governments should rapidly scale down the use of fossil fuels in response to climate change. But because of greed and dwindling global reserves, they are instead pursuing ever more destructive methods of extraction,” he said.
This appears to be part of the same railroad system as the one with the explosive accident which took place about 100KM – could be entirely coincidental.

July 7, 2013 2:28 pm

It would appear that the protesters were extremely prescient about the possibility of an accident, the railroad companies have had derailments before. Most likely a case of, “I told you so” rather than anything sinister.

July 7, 2013 2:30 pm

More details on the train blockade

Robert in Calgary
July 7, 2013 2:58 pm

Roger Sowell, You’ve been pwned, accept it.
Turn off your computer and have your tantrum in private.

A. Scott
July 7, 2013 3:06 pm

All I did was rank them by relative safety. I did not “smear these methods [truck and train] as unsafe”.
I just ranked them in rough order of safety.

Fair enough Willis … and in this case “smear” wasn’t intended to negatively reflect on you … was late and just didn’t have a better word at the time 😉

July 7, 2013 3:07 pm

Woody55 says:
July 7, 2013 at 9:13 am
I believe Buffet’s investment in rail was based on a view that ,over the longer term, energy prices would increase and rail would have an economic advantage over truck based transport of goods.

Or that’s his cover story. Or anyway only part of the truth.

Plus the rail assets were priced at a level that provided a good return on investment.

BN was definitely not bargain-priced.

R. de Haan
July 7, 2013 3:12 pm

Gail Combs says:
July 7, 2013 at 11:52 am
R. de Haan says: @ July 7, 2013 at 9:07 am
Gail, watch the video I posted about Exlplocontrol. This stuff really works. Take a gasoline or even an LPG tank, put it in a pool fire, no explosions.
The guy who developed this solution is from Spain.
I’ve secured all my fuel tanks (car and plane) with this material.
If you put this material on the floating roof of a jumbo storage tank you can have BBQ party on it.

A. Scott
July 7, 2013 3:52 pm

Codetech (and others commenting on 777 at SFO) … the NTSB released a preliminary stmt today … and it largely aligns with the review a number of pilots have done here:
This was pretty clearly a mismanaged approach by the air crew. The airport is undergoing runway improvements and the instrument landing system has been out for some weeks. The weather was severe clear visibility unlimited and aircraft were landing under visual flight rules.
ATC at SFO supposedly has a tendency towards “slam dunk” approach clearances that leave pilots high and close to the runway. It takes some effort to dump altitude and get on glideslope.
Us private pilots often experience this if landing at large airports. The ATC direction “maintain speed on final – heavy following” tells us to fly the aircraft at normal speed during the final approach, and only slow down and config for landing at last minute – which takes a fair amount of experience to do quickly. “Heavy’s” hate being forced to go around because a light aircraft slowed them down. Not to mention a go around costs thousands of dollars (or more) for them.
In this case radar Flightaware radar data shows the aircraft initially high and that they were descending at 1300+ feet per minute (>1,000 fpm I believe is typcial) to get to the glideslope. Their speed at last segment of the approach was considerably slow as they continued to attempt to bleed altitude. The engines were at flight idle through the descent.
The NTSB noted the engines were operating and did respond to flight controls – the crew apparently realized their problem, calling for more speed appx 7 seconds before impact. NTSB noted the stick shaker activated (warning pilots of imminent stall) appx 4 seconds before impact, and pilots initiated a “go around” appx 1.5 seconds before impact.
At this point they also appear to have significantly increased the AOA (raised the nose) and applied full power. They were far too late to do so, and the increased AOA caused the landing gear and tail to strike the rock sea wall at end of runway, almost cleanly shearing the tail from the aircraft.
Crash debris seems to show how slow the aircraft was moving (and potentially indicating a high vertical rate of descent at impact) – with the elevators and tail coming to rest within what appears a few hundred feet from impact. The rest of the aircraft rotated sideways and lifted into air almost blowing over (which would have been catastrophic) before settling back to ground and coming to a stop nearly intact. The right engine appears to have broken away at impact and ended up far past the airframe down field – which would seem to make sense as it was spooling up to full thrust at impact .
CNN just released amateur video of the entire crash which seems to confirm the NTSB’s statements and the comments from experienced others. An excellent discussion is avail here:
You can see the aircraft was approaching fairly low. You can see the nose rotate upward at last minute and the camera guy noting it was unusual.
Ironically – my speculation only – but it at least appears that had the crew not raised the nose so far at the last few seconds, losing further airspeed and expsoing the tail to impact – they might have been able to “drive on” to the runway – it would have probably been a very hard impact at a higher speed and may have had other repercussions, but they might have been able to maintain control of the aircraft.
There is discussion at PPRUNE that many pilots today, and perhaps more so pilots from certain areas (due to their culture and mindset), are not entirely competent to manually land the aircraft. Most companies require autopilot engagement down to 500 feet or lower. And every large commercial aircraft pretty much has auto thrusters that should engage automatically if the aircraft gets below certain parameters/speeds – if it gets in trouble – however in certain modes the auto thrusters are disengaged.
My gut feel is this will be simple pilot error. These pilots flew appx 11 hours I believe (although they shared duties among 4 pilots during that time). They should have known the instrument landing system was out at SFO and been prepared for a manual approach. They were given a fairly typical for SFO, but higher workload approach and landing clearance. Add it all up and they likely it would seem committed the cardinal sin – they got “behind” the aircraft and could not catch up. And did not react until too late.
Had they initiated go around even 15-20 second earlier they would likely have made it. Had they simply applied power 5 – 10 seconds earlier the result may well have been different. Why they did not – why they let a deteriorating situation go on so long without taking action will be the real question of the day.

Luther Wu
July 7, 2013 4:16 pm

Hey Roger Sowell… this is a special link just for you:

July 7, 2013 4:18 pm

Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm
There, he confesses that he writes to educate and entertain those in the cheap seats. Seriously, that’s what he said. So, now we know.

The word that comes to mind for your behaviour is ‘Boorish’.
Being able to write informative and entertaining articles on scientific and technical issues is a rare talent. As someone who considers themselves no slouch with the written word, IMO Willis is one of the best I have come across. As far as I can tell, your grievance is that Willis can do something you can’t.

Claude Harvey
July 7, 2013 4:47 pm

Re: Roger Sowell says:
July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm
It’s been said that a man should be judged by the caliber of his enemies. By that standard, Roger Sowell is dragging down your average, Willis.

A. Scott
July 7, 2013 4:55 pm
July 7, 2013 5:29 pm

One point that should be made during the Keystone controversy is to remind the public of all the exaggerated or false alarmist claims that greenies made in opposition to the Alaska pipeline.

July 7, 2013 7:13 pm

The train had been parked and the conductor was not aboard when “somehow, the train got released,”
I wouldn’t be surprised if this ‘mechanical failure’ turns out to be a green socialist.

July 7, 2013 7:38 pm

i would love to point out that the citizens of the state of alaska wanted a railroad and cars to haul the alaskan crude to stateside (i.e. lower 48) not for safety or economics but because they could haul other cargos to the state during the winter heavy snow conditions. even today commercial traffic is pretty much barge work during snow time.

Susan S.
July 7, 2013 7:53 pm

From what has been mentioned on the news here in Canada, there was a fire previously on that train in Nantes. So the locomotive was powered down, then thinking the site was secure by the fire department, when they should have left someone on site, not sure if they did. Sounds like they thought the fire was out, but any one with common sense would have left a person to watch the train, even if the fire was out. It seems the locomotive was on fire again before it rolled into the community of Lac Megantic. Story is here:

July 7, 2013 8:16 pm

Death toll now at 5, with “about 40” missing. News reports show pictures of a row of buildings that are just gone — businesses with apartments on top.
One thing you don’t touch on in your arguments about safety is the idea of trying to get more useful work out of every ounce of high-density energy storage we do transport dangerously. For example, if you double the fuel efficiency of cars (as is currently planned under the new CAFE standards), you reduce the volume you need to transport. This is largely orthogonal to the question of how you transport it.

Richard Todd
July 7, 2013 8:24 pm

I xray pipeline construction welds for “big oil” in Canada. We adhere to very stringent standards and review. No welds are buried until three qualified people take a look. I would sleep very comfortably with an “oil sands pipeline” running through my front yard rather than truck or rail.

July 7, 2013 8:45 pm

Lots of interesting comments / supposition here.
Just to clarify a few things, train air brakes in N. American are “charged” with air from a locomotive. Each car has a little ”can” (technically a reservoir) that is filled with air from the locomotive. Later when the train is moving the engineer can apply/release the brakes by using the “train line”. By reducing the pressure in the train line a simple little valve (the “triple valve”) causes the air in the little “can” to apply/release the brakes on that car. This was invented by George Westinghouse a while back. It is fundamentally different from a tractor trailer brake where a spring applies the brakes and is controlled (braking force removed) by air pressure.
The Westinghouse Air brake system is quite ingenious especially given the technology available at the time (~ 1880’s). It is not however totally failsafe. It is not designed to control a “parked train” without an engineer present. A “parked” train is susceptible to leakage. After a time the air in all the little “cans” on the cars can bleed off through the gaskets and hoses in the system. Once this happens the cars of the train have NO braking force available.
A secondary device, the “hand brake” exists on each car to provide braking force when the car is “parked”. The “hand brake” actually preceded the air brake historically and was originally used to stop trains. Hence the origin of the term “brakeman”, his (historically there were no “brakewoman”) job was to run along the top of the train and apply the hand brakes by turning the brake wheel. This was a simple wheel/chain/pulley/lever arrangement that forced the brakeshoes against the wheels. Very dangerous work.
So when you park a train it is very important to “set” enough handbrakes to keep the train in place. Once the air bleeds off there is NO BRAKING force present beyond the hand brakes. This bleed off may take tens of minutes to hours depending on the condition of the equipment. Most employee “book of rules” state something like; “Sufficient hand brakes will be applied to control the train”. But this is a judgment call on the part of the employees.
The other factor to consider is that this train was stopped when it was being pulled under power up a hill. This likely had the effect of “bunching up the train” as the stopping force starts at the front of the train and propagates backwards to the rear. Think of the leader of a Conga Line stopping and everybody bumping into the person in front of them.
So what likely happened is this (just informed speculation on my part);
1) The train was stopped with the air brakes while pulling hard up a hill.
2) This bunched up all the cars close together.
3) The departing crew applied several hand brakes on the cars closest to the locomotive; they likely thought 10 or 15 hand brakes were sufficient. Applying each hand brake takes about 5 minutes or so.
4) The air brakes on the rest of the cars slowly bled off and the cars at end of the train (without hand brakes applied) started to roll downhill.
5) As these cars gained momentum from rolling down hill they started to pull the few cars with hand brakes applied along for the ride (60 cars with no brakes can EASILY slide the braked wheels on 10 cars over the steel rail).
6) The momentum of ~60 cars rolling and ~10 cars sliding downhill without sufficient braking force snapped the coupling between the cars and the locomotive. This coupling is known as the “drawbar” and is only rated for about 150,000 pounds of force. Railroad crews routinely carry extra drawbars to fix unexpected events on “the road”.
7) The sliding wheels on the few cars with handbrakes applied caused sparks and was reported as “the train was on fire”.
So, it appears to be an unfortunate railroad accident not unlike other accidents in the past.
My thoughts and condolences to all involved, living with easily available energy is indeed difficult, but living without it is far worse.
Of course a thorough investigation will hopefully determine the cause and maybe help prevent it from happening again elsewhere.
Cheers, Kevin.

martha durham
July 7, 2013 9:33 pm

Trouble ahead trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind
Always thought Obama and Chicago style political machine was waiting for highest bidder to approve Keystone.
Never considered highest bidder had already been found.

A. Scott
July 7, 2013 10:15 pm

As I understand it – braking is applied by bleeding air – and brakes are released by pressure from the locomotive. Thus a “fail safe” – any LOSS of air pressure APPLIES the brakes – as it should be.

July 7, 2013 10:40 pm

Roger Sowell says: July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Do me and everybody else a favor, please … p’off, your taking up screen space and wasting our time.

July 7, 2013 10:44 pm

Outstanding post, Willis! Thank you! When I started my career in the oil patch of Oklahoma, I was amazed what I learned about the incredible oil pipeline system we have in this country. This is good information for interested readers:

July 7, 2013 11:07 pm

RE: Energy content TNT vs bbl of oil. It does seem counter-intuitive, but TNT carries both fuel and oxidizer, oil is just fuel. So on a per weight basis, there’s more fuel (100%) in the oil. That quick release of energy you get from high explosive is because the fuel & oxidizer are already mixed at the molecular level and only need a good push to collapse. The “price” is that only about 30% of the total weight is fuel, and the quick reaction isn’t the most efficient one. A ton of TNT is only about 30% fuel (600lbs) vs a barrel of oil (300lbs). If the TNT detonation is as much as half as efficient as burning oil in oxygen, then the energy content is about the same, This is one of the advantages of a FAE (fuel air explosive) or its progeny, more boom per pound.

Paul Vaughan
July 7, 2013 11:42 pm

Quebec disaster: Oil shipments by rail have increased 28,000 per cent since 2009

Mr Green Genes
July 8, 2013 1:24 am

KevinK says:
July 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm
Kevin, I respectfully disagree with one of your statements (“After a time the air in all the little “cans” on the cars can bleed off through the gaskets and hoses in the system. Once this happens the cars of the train have NO braking force available.”).
Brakes are normally “on” i.e. applied. When the compressor on the locomotive energises it charges up the system and, when the pressure reaches an appropriate level, the brakes are resleased. The pressure is many times greater than atmospheric for obvious reasons – such as a coupling breaking. The pipe severs and all train line pressure is lost which results in an emergency brake application. Pipe leakage therefore cannot cause the brakes to ease off. The only way to release brakes under these circumstances is to isolate the affected wagon(s) from the rest of the system – I do not know the operating requirements in Canada for this but in the UK there is a procedure to be followed, and woe betide the train crew if it isn’t followed properly.
The rest of your post makes sense to this retired railway engineer except for one point. It has been reported that the locos were found at a stand some 800m from the derailment.
It is possible that the train was marshalled as distributed load haulage. This means that one or more locos were actually in the middle of the train. This is not uncommon in North America because the length of freight trains means an unaccptable delay in brake application to the wagons at the rear of the train – the locos in the middle are remotely controlled from the leading loco and the brakes on the wagons behind them are operated by the centre locos.
If it wasn’t marshalled that way, to me it implies 2 things. Firstly that they were at the west end of the train and secondly that they ran away with the wagons, as I postulated above. Having had a chance to find out the origin and destination of the train (it was running from North Dakota to New Brunswick), I am at a loss to work out why the locos were at the west end of the train. As far as I can ascertain, the train should have been running from west to east i.e. down from Nantes (where it was stabled for the crew change) towards Lac-Mégantic. Under those circumstances the locos should have been at the east end.
There could be several reasons why the locos were at the “wrong” end of the train e.g.
They were shunted away during the fire incident – my thought would have been to get a burning loco away from a train full of a volatile substance as soon as possible;
The train was taking an exotic route, not apparent to this observer from rural England;
It was being shunted for another reason; etc.

Gary Hladik
July 8, 2013 1:28 am

From the article cited by Willis: ‘The train had been parked and the conductor was not aboard when “somehow, the train got released,” Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, Inc Vice President Joseph McGonigle said on Saturday.’
Where’s Denzel Washington when we need him?
A. Scott says (July 7, 2013 at 1:34 am): “A Boeing 777 crashed today at SFO – with miraculously almost all passengers walking away.”
Where’s Denzel Washington when we need him?
Probably Denzel Washington shouldn’t make a film about a nuclear power plant accident…
Willis continues: “And by what can only be considered an amazing coincidence, the Burlington Northern Railway is owned by a major Obama donor.”
As long as politicians have the power to make us rich (or poor), it will be worth somebody’s effort to buy them.

July 8, 2013 2:27 am

“Mr Green Genes says:
July 7, 2013 at 7:04 am”
The Deltic, a true classic in engineering, a bit of a rotter for cold starts though. Not bad for a cylinder head-less engine the basis of which was used in a torpedo boat in WW2. Shame emission standards killed it off. There are people I have talked with who claim the braking system used on UK locomotives and rolling stock was rubbish! I don’t recall a large scale freight crash like this ever occurring in the UK.
With the HST’s, my first trip on one was in 1978, London to Fishgaurd. Then regularly for a while commuting between Newbury and London in the early 1990’s. But then in about 2001 I was standing in the station in Wellington, NZ, waiting for my train home to be shunted along the platform. Right there was the “Kapiti Connection” (I think it was called) waiting to depart. I notice the cars and thought “That looks like an old BR HST car.” Sure enough, it was along with all the others, just painted in TranzRail livery and NZ running gear fitted (3ft6).
With the 777 crash, it’s looking more and more like a combination of factors, including pilot error sadly.

Mr Green Genes
July 8, 2013 3:04 am

Patrick says:
July 8, 2013 at 2:27 am
With the HST’s, my first trip on one was in 1978, London to Fishgaurd. Then regularly for a while commuting between Newbury and London in the early 1990′s.

We’re in danger of going a bit OT here but if you were to be commuting frm Newbury in the early ’10s, guess what type of train you’d be catching??!
Some of them even stop at Hungerford nowadays 🙂
I didn’t know they’d got to New Zealand but I know they were (still are, I believe) running around parts of Australia as the XPT.

July 8, 2013 3:08 am

A. Scott, thanks for the links and info.
I was merely speculating that there might have been a problem with the plane for the simple reason that NO airline is going to put a rank rookie in the pilot seat of a 777. From what I’ve seen and read at (I’m a regular reader there, LOTS of pilots and lots of airline pilots frequent the forums there) it would appear that particular airline might have.
SFO has the steep descent profile as part of their noise abatement. I’m sure that someone used to just riding the autolander in might have had a challenge doing it by eye, but it is truly mind boggling that someone who didn’t know what they were doing would be in charge of that descent.
As a former frequent flier, I guess I just want to think that the pilot of a heavy passenger jet has more experience than that.

July 8, 2013 3:54 am
July 8, 2013 4:22 am

Death toll climbs to 5, about 40 people still missing in wake of Quebec train explosion
Police were investigating the disaster, and would talk to everyone involved.
“Every time the Surete (Quebec police) needs to investigate, we need to rule out any foul play,” spokesman Benoit Richard told reporters. “Right now we cannot say it is a criminal act. We can only say we are looking at it as if it was.”

Alberta Slim
July 8, 2013 7:17 am

@Janice Moore says:
I know that I am nitpicking, but “chalk” will not hold a locomotive
but a “chock” might. ;^) (just a spelling error)

July 8, 2013 7:45 am

If he told you that for new construction the cheapest was offshore wind, he was … well … let me call him “the opposite of right” without touching on his motives.
Wellllll….. this is a guy who regardless of his “motives” has been involved in energy infrastructure most of his professional life. He didn’t express any opinion regarding climate change, or any particular enthusiasm for one type of energy over another. He emphasised that it was not a one size fits all situation. He stated that for new build off-shore was cheaper than thermal, but it depended entirely on the location.
From the link you posted: “U.S. average levelized costs (2011 $/megawatthour) for plants entering service in 2018″ would suggest a specific locale, no? This guy is involved in projects all over the world, France, Africa, Nepal etc.
He also said that compared to an existing brown-coal thermal power station, off-shore wind is not cheaper over its life time, but where no infrastructure exists, it was (and his speciality is developing infrastructure). He also said de-commissioning costs were regularly over-looked as part of the total life-time cost, and the most significant cost of all was transmission lines, implying proximity to energy source was important. His arguments were entirely from a commercial cost-effective point of view – I didn’t get any sense of an agenda being pushed.
I personally feel deeply skeptical about low density power generation such as solar and wind. I do not like wind as an energy solution, much preferring the possibilities of Thorium Liquid Salt and Electrostatic Inertial Fusion, and at least in the short term, natural gas, and I put this to him. But he said just from a pure cost-effectiveness point of view, it really was horses for courses (words to that effect) with regards to currently available technology.
Look, I share your skepticism. But I try to keep an open mind about these things at all times. He absolutely was no eco-warrior, or grant grubbing, enviro-mentalist, and what he said gave me pause for thought. I’d really like to know a little more. One thing I didn’t ask him, where was the money for the infrastructure coming from? How was it financed and were there political strings attached to how it was spent?

Dan Cummings
July 8, 2013 7:51 am

Some details:
– the train was heading towards Nantes and from there to the Irving refinery in Saint John, NB
– there were 5 locomotives; 4 were shut down and one was left running in the normal practice to keep the air brakes charged; MM&A says the hand brake was set
– someone unauthorized tampered with the locomotive and turned it off (using inside and outside controls, according to railway, after examination), then the train started rolling
– so 5 non-running locos; all 5 de-railed before fast-moving train reached Lac-Mégantic (this allowed them to be examined for tampering, preserving that part of the crime scene)
– there were 72 or 73 tanker cars (depending on source) and dozens of them blew and burned
– the group that blockaded same rail line in Maine on June 27th promised more ‘direct actions’ in a ‘fearless summer’
– 5 confirmed dead and at least 40 more believed to have perished, in bar, on street, in their beds
– possibly most deadly act of eco-terrorism ever in North America
– I learned all of the above and more from which is also how I found this article; that news aggregator made connection to the Maine blockade on Saturday

July 8, 2013 8:27 am

been thinking all along about those locos position and, while kept to myself, figured someone tampered with stuff. from the newswatch article linked just above by Dan Cummings it looks like I was right 🙁

July 8, 2013 11:15 am

Here’s Bloomberg’s story on the rail-vs-pipeline debate that is shaping up.

July 8, 2013 11:30 am

Willis said:
What outrageous claims did I make that require citation?

I think Sowell was alluding to your conjecture that Buffett was tipped off about the pipeline blockage in 2008. (Which I think was a plausible conjecture.)

July 8, 2013 11:56 am

$50 and I have a repeat loop dash cam in my car.
I’d say a MANDATE to have a “DASH CAM” in all control cabs, aircraft AND trains and tractor trailer rigs is in order.
NO REASON NOT TO to help track down “pilot”, “Human” errors.
ALSO radio control, “emergency stop” should exist.
Cost? Probaby $10K per locomotive.
But worth it.

July 8, 2013 12:11 pm

Dan Cummings said:
– the group that blockaded same rail line in Maine on June 27th promised more ‘direct actions’ in a ‘fearless summer’
– 5 confirmed dead and at least 40 more believed to have perished, in bar, on street, in their beds
– possibly most deadly act of eco-terrorism ever in North America

I wonder how much Hansen’s death train rhetoric had to do with this.

A. Scott
July 8, 2013 12:50 pm

CodeTech says:
July 8, 2013 at 3:08 am
A. Scott, thanks for the links and info.
I was merely speculating that there might have been a problem with the plane for the simple reason that NO airline is going to put a rank rookie in the pilot seat of a 777. From what I’ve seen and read at (I’m a regular reader there, LOTS of pilots and lots of airline pilots frequent the forums there) it would appear that particular airline might have.
SFO has the steep descent profile as part of their noise abatement. I’m sure that someone used to just riding the autolander in might have had a challenge doing it by eye, but it is truly mind boggling that someone who didn’t know what they were doing would be in charge of that descent.
As a former frequent flier, I guess I just want to think that the pilot of a heavy passenger jet has more experience than that.

Codetech … It was not the “pilot” that had low hours, it was the FO (First Officer, or copilot) … and the FO was not a low hours pilot – he had 10,000+ total hours if I recall. He was only low time in “type” – having 43 hours in a 777. There are some reports he was flying for the landing, but this really should be immaterial. You still had the pilot, and there were two other relief pilots on board, at least one of which supposedly also should have been on the flight deck. A minimum of TWO and possibly 3 pilots – two with much experience in type, were responsible.
And the co-pilot would have been thru an extensive “type” training program with simulator time and a check ride to achieve his rating for the 777.
This was a severe clear day – light winds, unlimited visibility … this should have been a simple landing for any experience pilot. It is not unusual for co-pilots, even with limited time in type, to fly the aircraft.
The approach was made slightly more difficult by the instrument landing system glideslope portion (altitude guide) being out while they upgraded the runway to add a larger safety zone at approach end. But 100′s of flights, including this company’s, have landed without incident. The pilots were made aware thru NOTAM’s the equip was out.
They had several alternative on the aircraft they could have used, but in reality the best and easiest should have been simply looking out the window… pick a bug splat on window – line it up with the landing zone – then manipulate attitude (with the control yoke) and altitude and airspeed (with the throttles) to keep the bug splat lined up with landing zone.
Comparison with the prior days Flightaware radar tracking data flight path …
… shows they apparently were given a “slam dunk” approach by controllers – which is dumping them into final approach at a higher than normal altitude and fairly short distance from the runway. Not unusual at SFO. The pilots successfully bled off that altitude and on short final – if you look at the 2nd to last segment before landing – they appear to show a very similar approach profile to the prior days successful flight.
When they begin the final segment as shown in Flightaware however it all goes wrong. This is the point where the pilot will begin raising the nose to slow for landing. Video shows this is exactly what the crashed flight does. However, there should also be application of power at that point as well – one to control altitude, as the change in attitude, the increased angle of attack, will slow the aircraft and cause loss of altitude without power (exactly as we see on the Flightaware profile), and second, because you want to have power – have the engines already spooled up, in case you need execute a go around .
Here the engines were at flight idle until 7 seconds before landing. Speeds according to NTSB were substantially below the target of 137knots. The aircraft increased its descent rate – all consistent with an increased angle of attack without a paired increase of power.
Why would these highly experienced pilots miss such a basic step? Two possible contributing factors. One, these companies (and the industry) discourage hand flying – they want the automated functions (autopilot etc) used wherever possible to increase safety and efficiency. That however means hand flying skills can deteriorate – which can lead to mistakes – mistakes which can be exacerbated when you add other factors – such as a glide slope – which provides them electronic information on whether they are on correct glide slope – and which allows the auto pilot to all but land the aircraft.
And two – it takes a different configuration of settings in the aircraft to hand fly – especially without glideslope information. On the 777 as with most transport aircraft, they have auto thrusters – which have the ability to automatically control power settings, especially convenient on landings. However, one of the auto pilot settings, FLCH mode, which it appears is one that might be selected during a manual landing, apparently takes the auto thrusters offline.
Speculation is the pilots – used to and encouraged to auto land as much as possible – expected the auto thruster to provide power as they flared for landing, not remembering that they were off line in that particular mode. And by the time they realized the error – 7 seconds before contact – they simply did not have enough time to recover… the stick shaker, warning of a stall, engaged at 4 seconds and at 1.5 seconds they initiated a go around, but it was too late by then, as they hit the end of sea wall ending the flight.

July 8, 2013 2:40 pm

A. Scott:
I was sorta trying to avoid hijacking this thread with the SFO incident so my response was terse.
However, all that you said was covered at, so I didn’t repeat it here. It appears the FO was flying the plane, a total of 4 pilots were in the cockpit. Originally someone said the FO had 10,000 hours on 737s, but that has been corrected to 747s, which means he had valuable experience with heavies. And you’re right, it’s immaterial who was actually flying the plane, there was enough experience in the cockpit that someone should have been keeping better watch on what was going on.
I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, and am not arguing. There are a lot of “should haves” in all discussions about this incident. I still use the phrase “mind boggling” at what appears to have been a tragic set of circumstances leading up to the crash. It just plain shouldn’t have happened, and yet it did.
I also concur with what many are saying: the 777 appears to have held together extremely well in circumstances that might have shredded a lesser aircraft.

July 8, 2013 3:10 pm

“- someone unauthorized tampered with the locomotive and turned it off (using inside and outside controls, according to railway, after examination), then the train started rolling”
Actually, according to latest reports, the “someone” was the local fire brigade who put out a fire in the engine, but who failed to realise the consequences of the engine being powered down (the brakes would fail).
“The train had been stopped at the neighbouring town of Nantes at the time.
Nantes fire chief Patrick Lambert told Reuters the crew switched off the engine as they extinguished a “good-sized” fire in the engine, probably caused by a fuel or oil line break in the engine.”
If that is the case then some of the posters here proposing conspiracy theory explanations have been guilty of premature ejaculation in a big way.

Janice Moore
July 8, 2013 5:28 pm

[a] “… ‘chalk’ will not hold a locomotive
but a “chock” might. ;^) (just a spelling error)” [Alberta Slim]
Thank you, Slim, for helping me out. Learning all the time. #[:)]
It was nice to know someone read what I wrote! Say….. that gives me an idea….. . [:)]
PLUS, in addition to getting to know that my comments are read, I can claim that all my mistakes were designed to do just that! LOL.

Janice Moore
July 8, 2013 5:31 pm

A. Scott said on July 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm
Another discussion on the 777 at SFO:
THAT WAS ONE COOL SET OF THREE THREADS over there. Apologies for going OT, but, I just had to re-publish that excellent link. Your analysis, BTW, A., was first-class reporting. Thank you.

July 8, 2013 5:40 pm

Willis : “If the engine is powered down, the brakes go on, not off … at least that’s my understanding.”
Actually, now that you mention it, that is what I thought as well, but…
“But Ed Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, says the engine had been left on by the train’s engineer to maintain pressure in the air brakes.
He says as the pressure gradually “leaked off”, the air brakes failed and the train began to slide downhill.`”
So there is something I don’t understand about train brakes.

July 8, 2013 5:46 pm

Re above : It seems train brakes are compression brakes, not vacuum brakes,so they do fail if the compressor is turned off.

July 8, 2013 6:28 pm

I heard the authorities felt the brakes were tampered with? Or was it a case of driver error?

a jones
July 8, 2013 7:04 pm

No gentlemen not quite so.
In trains the pneumatic Continuous Automatic Brake [CAB] depends on the creation of a differential pressure on either side of a piston in each vehicle to apply force through some mechanical linkage to the braking mechanism of that vehicle.
The pneumatic pressure is carried along the entire length of the train by pipe with flexible connectors between vehicles. This is called the train line.
Today the Westinghouse positive pressure system is almost universal although it has many variants and the British stuck to their vacuum CAB until almost the end of the 20th century.
No matter the principle is the same.
The difference in pneumatic pressure across the brake piston is produced by opening the train line to atmosphere which actuates the brake. The brake is called Continuous because the air pressure, or vacuum, passes along the length of the train by the train line so the brakes come on in every vehicle when called for by the driver opening his vent valve and opening the train line to atmosphere.
Likewise the brakes are described as Automatic because in the event of malfunction they will come on throughout the length of the train without human intervention. The classic example is a coupling failure causing a train to break in half which disrupts the train line so the brakes come on in both halves of the breakaway preventing the rear section from either running back on an ascending gradient or overrunning the front section even on a descending gradient.
The drawback with the pneumatic CAB is that power must be continuously used to pump the train line without which inevitable leakage over time will eventually prevent the creation of differential pressure across the brake piston so the brakes come off.
To deal with this all vehicles have some kind of mechanically operated brake which can be pinned down to stop the vehicle moving: such as when it is in freight [marshalling] ] yard.when the brake can manually released as required to move the vehicle.
This is a very simple explanation the details are more complex but I hope it serves to clarify matters.
Safety and operating practices vary so widely across the world it is not proper for me to comment further on what happened here beyond expressing my condolences to the victims of the disaster.
The inquiry will tell.
Kindest Regards

A. Scott
July 8, 2013 7:27 pm

Codetech – agree with you … just wanted to make sure people understood it was not a rookie pilot with few hours. A more important issue may be cultural … “seniority” is very important in these cultures – and rarely does one question another more senior. The “trainee” pilot it has been reported apparently had some type cultural seniority over the primary training pilot.
There was alos at least one other relief pilot on the flight deck. They all allowed the aircraft to get low and slow – and run out of ‘inertia’
New info today showed speeds at various points – their target speed should have been 137 … normallt the auto thruster should have kicked in when speed got too low, but in the mode (FLCH) apparently reqd for fast descents auto thruster speed protection is not engaged.
This was exacerbated as noted by raising the nose as it became clear they were in trouble.
FDR of Asiana Airlines Flight 214
Autopilot were disengaged at 1600 feet
1400 feet Airspeed 170 knots
1000 feet Airspeed 149 knots
500 feet Airspeed 134 knots
200 feet Airspeed 118 knots
125 feet Airspeed 112 knots
3 seconds before impact Airspeed 103 knots
Impact Airspeed 106 knots
Vref 137

July 8, 2013 11:29 pm

which is total bullshit anywhere on the planet. Yes, the link says “US average levelized costs” … is it your claim that offshore wind is magically cheaper elsewhere?
No it’s not my claim, it was Dave’s, the engineer I spoke to. He emphasised that point.
My understanding is the same as yours, and I am just as skeptical. But given that it’s what he does for a living, and he focused solely on cost-effectiveness rather than Eco-grand standing, he ought to know better than both of us. I think the point is transportation of energy, very relevant to your recent articles, and decommissioning costs. Does the table you linked to factor in those costs? Do they account for the variability of fuel costs? Maybe that’s what he has to do, take a conservative view of the costs of tranportation of, say, natural gas to the location, the gas itself, and ultimately the decommissioning costs of the plant at the end of its life.
Maybe too, (and I didn’t really get to the bottom of this although I did fish) the reason it is cheaper from his point of view of establishing infrastructure is because of policies that artificially encourage it. He’s an engineer. He doesn’t really care about how the deck of cards got that way, he just deals with the hand he gets.
And Willis, don’t shoot the messenger! I’m skeptical too – especially about low density power generation. This was a conversation at a party after quite a few bottles of tasty Australian white, but I have had to reassess my certainties so often now that until I know more i will have to keep an open mind.

July 9, 2013 5:48 am

jimmi_the_dalek writes “Re above : It seems train brakes are compression brakes, not vacuum brakes,so they do fail if the compressor is turned off.”
According to the earlier posters and the Wiki its the other way around and low air pressure causes the brakes to come on.

July 9, 2013 6:04 am

I wrote “According to the earlier posters and the Wiki its the other way around and low air pressure causes the brakes to come on.”
But having said that and reading it a bit closer, the system still relies on there being sufficient air in the cylinders to actually cause the brakes to be applied. So in that sense its a positive air effect of braking initiated by a low air effect in the control line. It actually strikes me as being a poor system and I would have thought if there was zero pressure in the cylinders and the train was stationary, then spring locking clamps should be applied.

July 9, 2013 7:01 am

TimTheToolMan says July 9, 2013 at 6:04 am

But having said that and reading it a bit closer, the system still relies on there being sufficient air in the cylinders to actually cause the brakes to be applied. So in that sense its a positive air effect of braking initiated by a low air effect in the control line. It actually strikes me as being a poor system and I would have thought if there was zero pressure in the cylinders and the train was stationary, then spring locking clamps should be applied.

Several errors in assumption expressed including overlooking the fact that these cars also have manual ‘parking’ brakes?
Do not confuse the ‘operational’ air brakes (with their special operational characteristics) with the mechanical parking brake intended to secure cars that are ‘parked’ for period of time.
Further extrapolate the issue of spring-loaded brake application in day-to-day use where *problems* would arise due to absence/failure of air supply and would also be unnecessary in say a simple switchyard environment where the switch yard engine can supply all the braking function necessary intrinsically; their are operational issues in scenarios that have not been considered when problem arise bearing directly on the choice of ‘braking’ actuation technology.
Perhaps a ‘deeper’ review of the reason, the how and the why (the complete history) behind the Westinghouse airbrake is needed?

Tim Scott
July 9, 2013 7:17 am

Eco-Terroism? They want to shut down all possible ways to move Shale Oil and shut this new boom down. The have tied Keystone XL into knots, so the industry says, “Okay, we will ship it safely by rail car”…..therefore, we need a spectacular de-railment incident to sway public opinion against this “dangerous” form of transporting evil oil. A train doesn’t just simple pull away on its own, there are too many interlocking safeguard systems (anybody see the movie Unstoppable?). Either the engineer was stupendously negligent, was bribed to do it, or someone go on the train unnoticed.

July 9, 2013 7:22 am

I thought this post and article excerpt did the best to sum it all up put all this in a bit of historical perspective from a man-power/human-factor aspect:
“Air Brakes are supposed to be “fail-safe”. So what caused the Lac-Megantic disaster?”

On Saturday, a train carrying crude oil was left parked uphill of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic; It then rolled down the hill, into town and derailed.

So what happened?
I am not an engineer, but have been interested in trains since childhood (my father was involved in transportation and I spent a lot of time around freight trains). Based on the news reports, this is my conjecture:
o The engineer completing his shift leaves an engine running to keep the pressure up. There is no parking brake, backup, no setting of the manual brakes that are built into each car.
o The engine catches fire; the Nantes fire department turns off the engine and puts out the fire.
o Without the engine supplying air to the reservoirs, The pressure eventually runs down and the brakes let go, and the train, parked on a slope with no manual brakes set, starts rolling.
This is very different from the way it used to be. Not that long ago, before cutbacks and efficiencies, there were brakemen who would manually lock each car down and then tell the engineer he could shut down his engine. (see comment at bottom of post).
In this case, the railway was shipping 73 tanker cars full of oil, parked it by the side of the road with the engine running and didn’t even put on the parking brakes. This isn’t a couple of wagons full of wheat, it is explosive stuff that is taking over the railroads.
This wasn’t brake failure; The air brakes did exactly what air brakes do when you turn off the air supply and leave. This was human failure in neglecting to set the hand brakes. It was a systemic failure in designing a system without backups. It was a management failure, with cutbacks so severe that trains are run by one person, they leave running engines unattended and don’t have the brakemen to do what is obviously a critical job, setting the handbrakes.
Don’t blame the brakes, it’s people that failed.
Update: Great comment in Globe and Mail:
In my day, a well-run railway always ensured that each train had a staff-complement comprising at least four employees: locomotive-driver, conductor, head-end brakeman, and tail-end brakeman.
On parking a train for the night, the two brakemen (and the conductor, if he wished to earn the brakies’ loyalty) would “set” the handbrakes on the locomotive(s) and on a number of cars commensurate with the “grade” (ie, the slope of the tracks) and the total weight of the oil tankers.
Under no circumstances would an old-style conductor and/or locomotive driver have relied solely on the “service” brakes (ie, the air brakes) to hold a 78-unit “drag (ie, the reported five locomotives and 73 oil tankers) in place overnight. In the morning, only after the driver started the locomotive and ensured that the air brakes’ compressors were working, would the brakies have felt free to release the handbrakes.
Yes, the whole process requires more personnel and more time (evening and morning). However, it sure does beat the hell out of the eternity into which this incident has consigned Lac Megantic’s deceased.

“Quebec firemen cut power to runaway train’s brakes, railway says”
BTW, later news accounts put representatives of the railway line at the scene before the fire dept responding to the fire call left … whether that is true or not we shall be finding out when the inquiry is released.

July 9, 2013 7:38 am

R. de Haan says July 7, 2013 at 8:47 am
We have all the technology to prevent a BLEVE in a tank in a pool fire, no matter if the tank contains oil, gasoline or liquid petrol gas. The answer is filling the tank with an aluminum mesh called Explocontrol.

How does this work, Ron?
Once, say, half the liquid has boiled away through the over-pressure valve the tank area ABOVE the liquid begins to soften and eventually ‘gives way’ resulting in the BLEVE …
You do understand that is what happens in a BLEVE?
As long as liquid is in contact inside with the ‘walls’ or surface of the container the temperature of the ‘wall’ stays reasonably close to just the boiling point of the liquid rather than continuing to climb (with continued exposure to an external flame or fire) where at some point it will begin to soften, expand then ‘blow’ open due to internal pressure …
Bleve Demo, softening tank metal above the liquid (e.g. LPG) –

July 9, 2013 11:59 am

These days, being a friend of Obama is worth big bucks.
Yeah, just ask Jon Corzine

July 9, 2013 3:21 pm
July 9, 2013 3:32 pm

Jim writes “Do not confuse the ‘operational’ air brakes (with their special operational characteristics) with the mechanical parking brake intended to secure cars that are ‘parked’ for period of time.”
I’m not confusing the fact. Its likely to be the case manual brakes weren’t applied or I think its fair to say the tradgedy wouldn’t have happened (unless it was sabotage). We’re looking at fail safes with train braking and its particularly interesting to me that the default “train stopped” position of train brakes isn’t particularly secure when it could be. Its not like the car stopped position where a person must be physically pushing on the pedal and so therefore must be physically present.
Beyond that for a car the manual handbrake must be used.

a jones
July 9, 2013 6:32 pm

I repeat again.
The dangers of leaving a train parked and unattended on a gradient even as shallow as one in one thousand and depending only on the pneumatic Continuous Automatic Brake [CAB], the air brake in American parlance, to prevent a runaway are so well known and understood that around the world most Railway Company’s Rulebooks forbid the practice: and in such circumstances require that the locally controlled mechanical brakes on each vehicle are manually locked down to prevent a just such a runaway.
Unfortunately runaways are still all too common although usually the resulting accident is nowhere near as serious as this one was.
The rest is entirely up to the inquiry and Canadian law about which I cannot comment, beyond saying that if it had occurred in the UK it would have led to serious criminal charges.
Kindest Regards

July 9, 2013 6:48 pm
“There are pieces that might lead us to believe that there are certain facts that might come to criminal acts,” Michel Forget said at a televised press conference in Lac-Megantic, Quebec today. “Criminal negligence might be one of the leads that we are looking at. Certain others, also. We are not at the stage of an arrest right now.”
Denies Wrongdoing
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert denied his team did anything wrong after Edward Burkhardt, president and chief executive officer of closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, which owns Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, raised questions about firefighters actions after a fire broke out on the train about two hours before the explosions.
“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” Lambert said on CBC TV yesterday. Municipal employees, including firefighters, have been asked not to speak to media, said a spokeswoman today for Nantes municipal civil security, who declined to give her name.
Burkhardt, who is also chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said today that the Nantes firefighters responding to a fire on the parked train’s lead locomotive may have switched off the engine, causing the air brakes to release, after the engineer secured it and left for the night. He made similar comments yesterday to CBC TV.

July 9, 2013 6:55 pm

Just to clarify few things about train operations in North America;
1) A train cars only braking force when moving is the air brakes, that, and occasionally the dynamic braking in the locomotive(s) (turns motors into generators and “pushes back” against the train cars)
2) The air brake force is supplied by air “charged” into the car by an operating locomotive before the car is moved (very similar to a battery operated tool, can’t do s—t if it ain’t charged)
3) With no air in the car the air brake is useless
4) There is a spring inside the air brake cylinder (the mechanism that converts air pressure to mechanical force) which releases the brakes when air pressure is removed/absent
5) The hand brake is similar to a parking brake on an automobile, it is only meant to hold a stopped car in place
6) The hand brake is almost useless above a few MPH
7) Air brakes are normally applied to all 8 wheels on a typical car
8) Hand brakes are usually only applied to 2 wheels (1 axle)
9) Hand brakes have about 1/10 (or less) the braking force provided by an air brake
10) The air brake application (assuming there is air in the reservoirs on each car) is controlled by the “train line”, a hose/pipe that runs the length of the train. Reducing the pressure (“I made a 10 pound application”) actually reduces the train line pressure which causes that much pressure to flow from the reservoir to the air brake cylinder.
11) It is only possible to “recharge” the air in each car when the brakes are released, on long steep grades it is possible (less likely these days) to “run out of air” if you apply/release/apply/release the brakes too many times
12) The Westinghouse air brake is not totally failsafe, Failure modes include;
The accidental blockage of the “trainline” by a kinked hose (Happened at Cajon Pass in CA), or a valve on one of the train cars being bumped to the “off” position (Caused a passenger train to run into (literally) Washington DC Union Station)
Excessive use of the brakes on a long downhill grade (less common these days since modern locomotives have huge air compressors)
14) A “parked” locomotive with diesel engines running attached to a train can (if properly equipped, most likely these days) make up for “leakage” and keep the brakes applied with a steady force
15) Correct practice when applying hand brakes on a train parked on a hill is to apply them to the “downslope” end of the train, if the “upslope” part of the train loses its air brakes the “downslope” part “should” hold the train in place (assuming it does not get above 1 MPH or so). The crew parking this train may have applied hand brakes to the portion closest to the locomotive (upslope) because the other end was about ¾ mile away (~73 x 65 foot cars)
16) The “blackbox” on the locomotive will not tell us anything about the condition of the hand brakes, there is no connection available to permit this
17) If, as I suspect, the down slope portion of the train lost air brakes (a combination of the locomotive being turned off by the fire department and elapsed time) the cars on the upslope portion of the train should show “flat spots” which occur when wheels are slid along the rail head. There was at least one witness report of “screeching sounds” from the train as it left its parked location, this would coincide with some of the train wheels being slid (dragged without rotating) along the rail surface.
18) Charging the train with air can take a considerable amount of time (upwards of 30 minutes) for the large trains operated in N. America
19) Train crews are often tempted to “save the air” when doing switching (shunting) operations along the main line. This has caused (on more than one occasion that I know of) the train “to get away”, in these cases the crews had to stop switching operations and “go after” their train.
I know this is a lengthy list, but it seems some folks would like to better understand all the details of how trains are operated (with a remarkable safety record) in N. America.
So, sadly it seems the train crew “parked” the train using the normal rules assuming that a relief crew would be along shortly. Then the locomotive caught fire and the fire crew shut it down (easy to do, most locomotives have a big red FUEL SHUTOFF button on the outside) as part of the normal firefighting operations. Then nobody realized that the air brakes would “bleed off” and think to check if enough hand brakes where applied.
A terrible accident, I would wager that everybody involved is racking their brain right now wondering; “what if I had only double checked this or that…….”
FYI, My father worked for 49 years as a locomotive engineer for a large railroad in the Northeastern US. So I learned all of this at an early age. And I have volunteered at a railroad museum and actually worked with/on this equipment.
I cannot speak too much about how it is done elsewhere, but railcars (freight and some passenger) routinely travel all across Canada, Mexico and the USA using identical systems.
Cheers, Kevin.

July 10, 2013 4:59 am

Not sure if this has been posted but, criminal investigations are being launched into the tragedy.

Jack Simmons
July 10, 2013 8:04 am

Les Johnson says:
July 7, 2013 at 3:50 am

Rail car traffic is up 35% over last year in this report. Mostly due to rail shipments of oil from the Bakken deposits in North Dakota. It has since gone to over 50%.
Also note Warren Buffet’s involvement, and that Buffet opposed the Keystone pipeline.
Buffet and Carl Icahn both have a stake in railroads, and thus in stopping pipelines.

One of the reasons I love this place are little tidbits of information such as Les shared with us.
How often do we hear about environmentalists who have motives as pure as the wind blown snow wanting to stop fossil fuels, and the way of life based on those fuels? Then we find out the motives are not quite as pure.
Buffet is a beneficiary of the capitalist system in place today, all of which is driven by fossil fuels. Good for him and I wish him every success. But why does he get a pass in all this? Doesn’t everyone realize the Dairy Queen he owns is dependent every day on the expenditure of fossil fuel? Electricity to keep his ice cream cold, fuel to haul the dairy products to his stores, fuel for his employees’ transportation to and from work, etc.
I know the answer to all this is politics, but why can’t people see everyone has an agenda?
Also, again, people who really know what they are talking about will offer observations on this blog not to be found anywhere else in the world.
Once again, thanks to everyone making this a place to visit on a regular basis.

July 10, 2013 7:10 pm

Final toll appears to be 50 dead. Authorities have found 20 bodies so far, only one of which they have identified; according to earlier statements, they don’t seem to expect to find many more. The rest are reduced to ashes.

July 10, 2013 7:40 pm

“[Rail CEO] Burkhardt laid the blame for the crash on his own engineer for failing to properly apply hand brakes on the rail cars when they were parked in nearby Nantes. He said his company’s inspection indicated the brakes were applied on the locomotives, but not on the rail cars.
Burkhardt told reporters today that the train’s engineer told the company he had applied 11 hand brakes.
“We think he applied some hand brakes, the question is, did he apply enough of them?” Burkhardt said. “He’s told us that he applied 11 hand brakes and our general feeling now is that that is not true. Initially we took him at his word.”
The engineer has been suspended, he said. Burkhardt didn’t name the engineer.
Police are investigating a possible criminal act or negligence, Surete du Quebec police Inspector Michel Forget said yesterday.”

July 11, 2013 2:30 am

Thanks to the railway experts who contributed to this thread. As a public education exercise, it has been awesome. There is no way that I (and many other readers) would have learned so much about locomotive and train braking systems otherwise.
Clearly, some of the best minds over a long period devoted themselves to railway engineering.

Mike from Minnesota
July 11, 2013 4:59 am

In regards to the comments on train brakes,
The only addition I would like to make that I learned on another website was that trains in America use a reverse system on there braking system in which the brakes are “always on” by use of a spring in the braking system ( I assume spring is on the calipers of the brakes if similar to autos)
In this american system the “brakes are held in the off position, or operational, by the air pressure” (opposite of canadian systems) but if air pressure is lost completely then all the brakes apply themselves, a failsafe in which the spring being mechanical keeps the brakes on because its better a train stop and not move then be a runaway!
Had this american system been used on these railcars this accident would never have happened.
Hope this helps a bit, otherwise great reading on the braking system on trains.

July 11, 2013 7:35 am

Mike from Minnesota says July 11, 2013 at 4:59 am
In regards to the comments on train brakes,
The only addition I would like to make that I learned on another website was that trains in America use a reverse system on there braking system in which the brakes are “always on” by use of a spring in the braking system ( I assume spring is on the calipers of the brakes if similar to autos)

Your source of info on this is ??? A patent number, a website link, a name (like Westinghouse Airbrake or Railway air brake) … anything?
PS. Specifically, please cite the source referencing “springs”. Your source may be in error …

Just Me
July 11, 2013 7:56 am

This is a very good article. There is a lot of information and facts with sourcing and seemingly accurate information. There is only one objection I have. In the case made for the for the Keystone XL pipeline, it is stated that the only concerns are petroleum usage period. I feel the pipeline will be built but it is very good thinking to slow down and find the safest route with the fewest possible future problems. This does take time but is much better than just charging ahead without thinking.

July 19, 2013 1:16 pm

Canada investigators want rule changes after deadly rail crash
(Reuters) – Canadian investigators issued their first recommendations on Friday after a devastating train wreck in Quebec, urging that trains hauling dangerous goods not be left unattended, and pushing for stricter guidelines on railway braking systems.
Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators probing the July 6 disaster in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic said the “braking force” applied to the train, which was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude oil, was insufficient to hold it in place….

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