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Two derailments, one tragedy

Posted by John Hankey
on Monday, August 27, 2012

Once in a while, an incident gets your attention in unsettling ways. That happened the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 21, when a CSX coal train derailed in Ellicott City, Md. Two young women lost their lives. They were just days from returning to college, one of them to a school I attended.

I’m pretty certain I crossed paths with CSX train U813 on its way east from Grafton, W.Va. I was returning from a weekend conference in Ohio, and decided Monday to follow the original B&O route from Wheeling, W.Va. (then part of Virginia), to Cumberland, Md. One of the coal trains I saw had to have been U813.

And I ran similar trains myself through Ellicott City 30 years ago. I can visualize the eastbound curve to the left, the constricted right-of-way, then in quick succession the short bridges over Main Street and Tiber Creek, the old stone station, and the hulking old mill across the Patapsco River. Ordinarily, a coal train would slip through Ellicott City in a few minutes and barely get noticed.

Tuesday, Aug. 21 was no ordinary day. A little after midnight, U813 went into emergency as the head end passed the station (now part of the B&O Railroad Museum). Something happened not far back in the train that sent loaded coal cars over the retaining wall to the north, just missing an old stone house. In fact, the derailment didn’t touch any of the historic structures of the one-time mill town.

The early, overnight photos showed a nightmarish scene that was impossible to make sense of. Later helicopter and telephoto shots suggested an unusual, although plausible, sequence to the disaster. Of course, the National Transportation Safety Board has the final word.

It looks like the crew was running by the book. NTSB said the crew’s speed was 25 mph, just what the timetable authorizes. They apparently felt nothing out of the ordinary until the air went down. My guess is that they were in light dynamic with the slack lightly bunched, anticipating a leisurely roll downhill to the Curtis Bay Coal Pier yards, about 15 miles east.

The initial derailment and separation seems to have occurred 10 to 15 cars from the head end, and quickly brought that part of the train to a halt. Then two things happened. The mass and inertia of 60 or so loaded cars to the rear piled up more cars in a classic “scissors” pattern, spilling hundreds of tons of coal and crushing automobiles in the parking lot below. Fortunately, no one was there at the moment.

This is where things turned both ironic and tragic. When the train went into emergency at the point of initial derailment, the brakes would have quickly set on the front of the train still in motion — but not the locomotives. That is a safety feature intended to let the mass of the engines pull the front of a separated train a little further down the tracks, in hopes that the front end would avoid getting smacked by the hind end “running in.”

This is, of course, speculation. But there was just enough of a curve, and the locomotives may have had enough inertia, to pull the loaded cars over and spill their contents to the north of the track. No matter whether the rollover propagated from back to front or vice versa, the first 10 cars remained coupled and seemed to be stretched. The head end looked like a classic “stringline” derailment, and an inadvertent demonstration of just how robust and effective today’s shelf couplers can be.

And a cascade of coal from one of those cars caught the two young women sitting on the edge of the bridge over Main Street. They didn’t have a chance and died of “compressional asphyxia.”

The CSX crew that hustled to help them, and the many first responders, will carry ghastly memories for the rest of their lives. Because this happened in a suburb of both Baltimore and Washington during the August slow-news cycle, it became a high-profile incident with all sorts of potentially unpredictable consequences for the industry.

The proximate cause will likely be something mundane — a rail defect, broken wheel, or some other failure that is difficult to anticipate and happens almost at random. Accidents caused by big trucks kill thousands of people each year, but we accept those casualties as a perverse “cost of mobility.” This might be different.

In a year or so, the NTSB will issue its findings and likely have a definitive cause and further recommendations. No one can predict what the outcomes might be. But this one will haunt me for a long time to come.

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