Most things donâ€™t happen the way they do in the movies. Changes are less sudden, incidents less surprising, humans less attractive. But when a runaway train tore through the Australian Outback, the action sequence that followed seems to have come right from a Tony Scott flick.
The whole mess started when the driver stopped the 268-car, 4-locomotive train and hopped out to inspect one of the cars, according to the Australian Transport Safety Board. While he was on the ground (presumably distracted by giant spiders and roving kangaroos), the train pulled away with nobody aboard. Loaded down with iron ore, it was soon hitting 68 mph. The train, operated by metals, mining, and petroleum giant BHP, covered a remarkable 57 miles before the company stopped itâ€”by flinging it off the tracks.
Nobody was hurt, though the investigators, who are working to determine why the train ran away in the first place, rates the damage to the vehicle as â€œsubstantial.â€�
Runaway trains are rare, and runaway trains that remain on the lam for nearly an hour are even rarer. â€œThatâ€™s very unusual,â€� says Allan Zarembski, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Delaware who studies railroad safety and derailment prevention.
It does, however, make sense that it took railway authorities some time to track down and derail the thing, given the landscape of this section of Western Australia, called Pilbara: Under 50,000 people live in the 194,000-square-mile region, which is mostly known for its iron ore mining operations. And it makes sense that attacked the train 74 miles before it got to Port Hedlund, population 14,000. When crashing a train, you want as few people around as possible.
As to the derailment itself, Zarembski suspects BHP went one of two routes. First: They might have used railroad derails, or derailers, relatively lightweight steel devices that clamp to the top of a railhead. In more normal circumstances, derailers can be used to prevent a slow-moving train from switching tracks. But when a train moves toward a derailer at a faster speed, the device creates a ramp that picks up the trainâ€™s wheels and pushing them off the track. It, well, derails it.
Some derailers are portable; others are permanently attached to rail lines and can be moved into place remotely when needed. It sounds like the latter happened in Pilbaraâ€”the ATSBâ€™s initial report says the train was â€œdeliberately derailed at a set of points operated by the control center.â€�
For a train moving this fast, though, Zarembski says a derailer might not do the trick. â€œThe other way to derail a train is to cut out a piece of rail,â€� he says. â€œYou can go in there with a cutting torch and cut out a foot or two of rail at a curve.â€� He estimates the whole operation might take two cuts and between 15 and 30 minutes, tops.
However they did it, the result was not pretty. YouTube footage purports to show the mangled wreckage of the train and track. BHP did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but told Bloomberg that nearly a mile of track had been damaged by the derailment, and that it will take about a week for iron ore hauling to resume in the area. The shortage could lead to temporary iron ore price jumps worldwide.
Hereâ€™s one spot of good news: The technology to prevent an extended runaway train incident like this one already exists. Positive Train Control systems use train- and rail-mounted GPS and sensors to track locomotive movement and alert conductors and dispatchers to imminent derailments or collisions. If humans donâ€™t react to the warnings, the systems are designed to automatically brake trains before something terrible goes down. Congressional legislation demanded American railroads implement Positive Train Control by 2015, but the Department of Transportation extended the deadline to December 2018 after many struggled to build in the technology in time. According to the DOTâ€™s Positive Train Control dashboard, just 18 of 40 railroads had PTC implemented on all their locomotives by July of this year. Still, with any luck, Hollywoodâ€™s window of opportunity for runaway train-based screenplays just might be closing.
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