AusRAIL, Market Sectors

No time to be complacent on rail safety

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Despite decades of focus on improving rail safety around the globe, every now and again we are brought down to earth with a jolt as has been the case in recent weeks with three serious rail incidents. Mark Carter provides an brief overview on some of the issues involved with these latest disasters. </span> <p>Globally, rail’s excellent safety credentials took a big hit during July with major incidents Spain, France and the Canada, all in quick succession and resulting in many fatalities and throwing up numerous questions as to why and how.<br />While acknowledging that official investigations are continuing, it appears that in at least two of the incidents human error played a big part, though the human failing were compounded by a series of smaller related vents as is so often the case – though not a phenomenon exclusive to rail.&nbsp&nbsp</p><p>On 6 July the small Canadian town of Lac-Mgantic in Quebec was rocked by a huge fireball caused by the derailment of a train of 72 loaded oil tankers that had runaway after being left unattended.</p><p>It’s hard to envisage a similar scenario occurring here in Australia. The loaded oil train had been parked on the main line at the top of a grade at the nearby town of Nantes. As the hours for the one-man crew member had expired he had to book off to the local motel. The train had been left unattended adjacent to a public road with one locomotive still powered up to maintain the train’s air braking system.</p><p>During the night the local fire brigade attended to a small fire on one of the five locomotives at the head of the consist which was extinguished without too much fuss, but reportedly the engine may have been shutdown at this time.</p><p>Sometime after this the train started to roll back down a 1.2% grade, eventually derailing some 11 kilometres further on in Lac-Mgantic. The resulting pile up of ruptured oil tanks and subsequent explosion devastated the downtown area with at least 42 people dead as result and five others still missing.</p><p>The incident occurred on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway, a regional line operated by Ed Burkhard’s Rail World Inc. Burkhardt has come under intense criticism for his somewhat confused and insensitive initial response to the disaster.The resulting insurance and clean up costs may yet see the MMA operation wound up.</p><p>The incident highlights a number of issues including the large increase in the movement of oil related products In North America following the boom in production from oil shale and oil sand deposits, often using tanker fleets that do not match up to current accepted safety standards.</p><p>Long hours worked by one man crews especially on the MMA have also come under scrutiny, with Canadian regulatory authorities subsequently banning the use of one-man crews. Initial investigations suggest that an insufficient number of handbrakes had been applied on the 72 tank cars, though this yet to be officially confirmed.</p><p>Less than three weeks later, rail safety was in the headlines again on July 24 when a high-speed train in Spain derailed and crashed into a concrete retaining wall, just outside the city of Santiago de Compostela in the country’s north, killing 79 of the passengers on board and injuring many more.</p><p>Despite official investigations yet to be completed, driver oversight and the speed of the train at the time have been determined as the major factors, the train estimated to have been travelling at 158km/h under brakes as it entered an 80 km/h curve.</p><p>It has come to light that the driver appeared unfamiliar with the local route the train was signaled for and had been talking to the conductor of the train via mobile phone, seconds before the crash.</p><p>The driver of the train has been charged with 79 counts of homicide by professional recklessness and a number of counts of causing injury by professional recklessness.</p><p>At the time it derailed, the train was running on a conventional route as opposed to dedicated high speed track, the latter being equipped with automatic train protection (ATP) that can override excessive speed. The train had swapped from ATP protected track to conventional trackage and safeworking systems about four kilometers before it left the rails.</p><p>Despite the loss of seven lives, the derailment of an early evening express train from Paris to Limoges at the suburban station of Bretigny-sur-Orge in the southern suburbs of Paris was overshadowed by the more dramatic events described above.</p><p>The train left the rails and mounted a platform and was reportedly travelling at around 135 km/h, but as opposed to the Spanish disaster was formed of a conventional locomotive hauled train set as opposed to a high-speed train, as incorrectly reported elsewhere. Early indications by French authorities are that a loose fishplate was the initial cause of the derailment, but have yet to determine whether it was a maintenance or materials failure.</p><p>The number killed and injured in the French collision is considerably lower than those in the Santiago de Compostela crash, despite the former travelling at 135 km/h at the time it left the rails. While to date it has not been cited as a factor, this discrepancy may yet see attention focused on the design of the hybrid articulated high-speed Talgo units in Spain.</p><p>It is still too early to say what lessons we can learn for these tragedies, but as is always the case we can only hope that some good comes out of this tragic loss of life through improved operating practices and technology, and that everyone involved in the industry realises that safety is something that can never be taken for granted.<br />&nbsp</p>