Gallery C

Those Tanker Cars
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“Bomb Trains” Are Potential Disasters

By James Donahue

When traveling I-40 going east or west across the middle of the country the highway runs for miles along the Southwest Chief railway. Long streams of freight cars pulled by rows of diesel engines constantly travel that road from Los Angeles west to Albuquerque, then northward to Chicago.

What is unique about most of these trains is that they are pulling flat cars with truck trailers filled with cargo. The things in the trailers are usually bound for the Port of Los Angeles, or being shipped from incoming foreign vessels to business places in major cities across the land.

Some of these trains are carrying passengers.

And some are pulling tanker cars filled with dangerous fuels like crude oil, gasoline, crude oil, aircraft fuel and chemicals that when released into the air, can be deadly poison to anyone living or standing nearby.

Because of the economic slowdown, all businesses in the United States and elsewhere are tightening their belts, cutting staff, and failing to keep up appropriate maintenance on machinery. Such has been the case with the railroads. Defective track may have been the cause of a few serious train derailments, some of them in or near populated areas where a lot of people had to be evacuated from their homes.

One writer appropriately referred to these as “train bombs.” The worry is that a derailment in a major city like Chicago, Grand Rapids or Detroit could result in a lot of sudden death and destruction, just because a train unexpectedly derailed or collided with something.

The trains usually always move very slowly through major populated areas, cut not always. During my years of working as a newspaper reporter, I have covered a few serious drain derailments that came within a hare’s breath of wiping out an entire town.

The worst I covered occurred at Coloma, Michigan, in Van Buren County, in the 1960s. The C&O trains raced on a main line through Coloma, on their way between Chicago and Grand Rapids, and if they slowed down for the town, it wasn’t by much. Consequently folks who lived there were extremely cautious about crossing those tracks, and when the signal gates were down, everybody obeyed. The trains came so fast you hardly heard them coming. There was just this big flash of engines and cars rolling through town at speeds approaching 70 miles per hour.

One cold winter night one of those freight trains heading north toward Grand Rapids derailed about a mile out of Coloma. The cars rolled and tumbled and tore up the rails, the ground and every tree or building in their way until coming to a stop just a few feet away from the first large building in the downtown business district.

Miraculously there were no fires and nobody was hurt or killed.

I remember walking in heavy snow the full length of that amazing wreck, shooting pictures with a big 4 by 5 inch press camera. I marveled that the town had been spared.

The residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, were not as lucky in July, 2013 when a 74-car freight train hauling Bakken formation crude oil derailed and several cars exploded. The blast killed 47 people, leveled 30 buildings and left a blast radius of more than a half mile in diameter. 

A spokesman for the railroad said the cold weather shifted the track, thus causing the wreck.

As the railroad tracks age, and the iron rails begin to crack and twist, the last thing we should be hauling in large bulk on those trains is dangerous liquids that can either explode, burst into flame, or poison that landscape.

It is due time that the corporate bosses that run the trains and shipping companies start using some common sense.