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)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Super 8, The Movie: 35 boxcars and 1 monster off the rails

The ad for Super 8 caught my eye during the Super Bowl and I hunted up the trailer, curious about its depiction of a train off the rails. Using the pile-up in The Greatest Show on Earth as a bench-wreck, how does Super 8 compare? To its credit (at least as edited in the trailer) the crash in Super 8 didn't drag on like some movie wrecks, in which engines and cars seem to slide across two states and a county after leaving the track.

Trailer summary: The USAF has dispatched a creature from Area 51 to Secret Base, Ohio, on a Midnight Special. It's locked in a boxcar secured by a twirly wheel on the door. As is fated in most plots with prisoners shackled on planes, trains or buses, there's going to be a wreck so that somebody or someThing can run free.

Liberation comes courtesy of a pickup that whips onto the track and, thumping down the ties, goes headlight to headlight with the road engine. The pickup vanishes in the obligatory fireball and the train leaves the track in high-energy fashion, with either a boxcar or the engine sent flying and spinning. Silence falls, flames flicker.

Energized by a falling power line, our ambidextrous alien starts pounding on the steel door and simultaneously twisting a big wheel to get out of a boxcar labeled, in the interest of full disclosure, "US Air Force."

So, to three questions:

Can a passenger vehicle derail a train? Yes, there have been multiple cases in which passenger trains were sent off the track by a car or pickup in the way. Among the most tragic of the recent cases happened in 2005 in Glendale, CA, when a Metrolink commuter train struck an SUV left on the track, causing a wreck that killed 11. 

In most cases the car will be reduced to flying fragments while the train suffers only a dent, but derailments are not out of the question if a stout piece like a broken axle gets jammed under a rail.

What happens to boxcars during a derail – do they really get tossed high into the air like police cars in a Die Hard movie? Not that I know of. While there are witness reports of boxcars and even 250-ton engines tumbling end over end, a freight train is not nearly as fast as a bullet train and the physics don't favor tossing a few dozen tons high in the air from a level track. 

What happens to a locomotive upon departing the rails? This may of some comfort to those who suffer from siderodromophobic nightmares: Locomotives once off the rails aren't good chase vehicles. As they topple over, their narrow wheels dig in and tear up the track thoroughly. Depending on the terrain they might roll down an incline or slide a short distance on their sides, flattening obstacles and gouging a furrow.

So, regarding the segment in The Fugitive in which a locomotive hits a bus, leaves the track, and while leaning crazily manages to pursue Harrison Ford along the right-of-way, halting only when it slams into a ditch ... in reality, locomotives can't remain upright in such circumstances. But it's a heart-stopper of a scene.

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