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)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Train collision in Oklahoma: Jump or die


I mentioned in this post, Unstoppable and the Story of CSX 8888, that railroad companies don't permit engineers to leap from a moving train except in cases of imminent collision. This may have struck some as a quaint but unlikely scenario, a reference to engineer Casey Jones' last words to his fireman: "Jump, Sim, Jump!" 


But it still happens. A recent incident came with the June 13 collision of two Union Pacific freight trains near Goodwell, Oklahoma. (Photo: Trudy Hart, Guymon Daily Herald)
Each head-end engine (the locomotive in front) had two crewmen, for a total of four lives at risk.

How could two dispatched trains smash into each other in mid-morning on a straight, flat stretch of track? So far there's no explanation why the westbound train didn't get to its assigned siding in time, though railfans have plenty of speculations. 

We have only the bare facts from the NTSB preliminary statement: speed of each train, total weight (about 12,000 tons), the weather (clear and hot), and the trains' location on a main line in the UP's Pratt Subdivision. But an explanation will be forthcoming: for one, there's recorded data. While the collision destroyed black-box recorders in the lead engines, each train had a locomotive at the rear with its own event recorder, and the UP's traffic computers should have a record of what happened when.

And there's a survivor to interview. While three crewmembers died in the crash and flames, a fourth jumped from the slower of the two trains and tumbled to a stop with minor injuries. 

Knowing when to stay or go is a key part of what I call the Survivability Zone -- more on that later.

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