Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From Derail to Re-rail

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal train derailed in June near where I live so I went over to watch the response. Basically, a contractor works around the clock until the line is provisionally open. Delays on a main line are very disruptive, costing a railroad tens of thousands of dollars per hour, so derailment contractors are well paid.

Seventeen cars overturned or went off the rails on a Wednesday morning, ripping up a section of rail and sending it through the wall of an office building. The woman who normally uses that space was elsewhere at the moment -- a good thing.

The line was open for slow-speed traffic two days later. Reflecting on the many stops and starts at the Deepwater Horizon disaster site, it struck me how this company, Hulcher Services, knew what it needed to do and brought, or hired, everything it needed. There were no wasted motions and no press packets on how many people or machines were at work. They just worked.

The process works like this: after a wreck, the railroad calls Hulcher's HQ in Denton, Texas. HQ dispatches the nearest Hulcher crews. In this case the closest was Hudson, Wisconsin. Hulcher keeps its men on standby, something like firefighters, and guarantees to have its semis rolling in an hour.

First job for Hulcher: get the site organized. Hulcher hires extra heavy equipment as needed, trackhoes in this case. The wreckmaster notes which cars or engines are off the rails; how many of these are undamaged enough to use again, and how many have to be scrapped. This particular wreck involved a unit train of aluminum hopper cars, hauling 15,000 tons of Western coal. It was bound for Superior, Wisconsin.

Second job: drag wreckage off to the side and load up scattered freight. In this case, trackloaders and vacuum trucks moved heaps of coal into rear-dump semis. I'd guess a thousand tons of coal was on the ground.

Third: re-rail undamaged cars that have gone off at low speed, using side-boom tractors that can lift 50-80 tons short distances. A side-boom tractor features a compact boom and hook on one side, and a massive, hydraulically extendable counterweight on the other side. This keeps the machine from tipping. The side-booms substitute for the "big hook," which is railroad lingo for a wrecking crane. Hooks offered a lot of lifting power but could only operate from a track, so they were cumbersome and slow, and needed a lot of manpower to handle the rigging and lay temporary track.

Fourth: pick up damaged cars and engines and haul them off the right of way. Four side-booms working in close coordination can pick up a locomotive and set it back on the rails. Recovering locomotives is particularly challenging when a train has gone off the rails into a ravine, and crews have to work off a steep slope or a trestle.

Fifth: Using ballast brought in by the railroad, regrade the right of way and install sections of temporary panel track. Panel track comes in pre-assembled sections of rail and ties, like in a Lionel set, but forty feet long. It arrives stacked on a flatcar. Panel track can be a bit uneven but it gets low-speed traffic moving.

Since Hulcher is an emergency service, the railroad crews take over at this point, spending days or weeks to rehab the area. In August, BNSF said the cause was a track misalignment caused by summer heat.

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