Monday, December 13, 2010

Anatomy of a train wreck

Port Townsend, today. Among my favorite television programs are the "Forensic Files" reality series. I enjoy watching the process of gathering clues and putting pieces of this and that together to solve a crime.

And so it was that when I viewed the video captured by "cnwtrain" of the derailment of six cars of a 91-car grain train down in New Orleans on Steve Boyko's "Confessions of a Train Geek" Blog, I decided to learn as much as I could about the wreck, and locate exactly where the video camera was placed.

In the video, we see a train movement slowly approaching a siding. The conductor does his footwork to the switch, obviously not locked. Why it is unlocked, we will probably never know. However, he does not go through any visible process of unlocking the switch.

Next, we see him throw the switch, reticent to close cleanly. The conductor shoves the lever down a couple of times with his foot. To the casual viewer, the switch action looks "spongy."

Finally, without securing the lever in the thrown position, the conductor advances back to the locomotive, obviously concerned that the switch is aligned, as he has a look of "Doubt" on his face as he returns to the power pack.

When I was a young man riding with train crews on the CNR, the ground man always slipped the switch lock through the switch arm lock slot, even if they didn't secure the lock.


"cnwtrain" shot a good video of the cars heeling over after moving past the switch onto a siding. I say "almost" perfect because one of his friends is in the way momentarily. But to his credit, "cnwtrain"

  • Had good video exposure
  • Had good quality sound - you can hear the air pumps on the power pack
  • Had his camera on a TRIPOD
  • And, most important, kept his hands OFF the ZOOM lens.
That made the difference between a good video and bad video, especially since the accident happened so quickly. I have the bona fides to say "Well done, 'cnwtrain.'"

This series of photos demonstrate how I located the point from which the video was taken.





I will stick to being an "arm chair" forensic scientist. I did poorly in Chem 101 (F). Officials with the Canadian National are investigating the cause of the six-car derailment that shut down two Old Jefferson street crossings.

And "Thanks" to Steve Boyko for inspiring this evenings offering!

2 Comments - Click here:

Train Geek said...

Good detective work finding the spot!

After posting, I looked at the news photo from overhead and realized, as you did, that it was a facing point move. Not securing the switch could definitely be the problem in this case.

Thanks for the link. One coming back to you.

anon said...

The switch stand is a weighted gravity handle. There is no lock, hasp or anythihg but the cast iron knob on the end of the handle. I work on a line with a lot of these switches. We have had tabs welded onto the handles and bases so they can be locked out for track maintenance. They are only used in yards and on other-than-main track. The conductor didn't sweep anything out of the point though. It looks like the switch was adjusted poorly or something was stuck in the point. Could be a lot of little things though. If a car had a sharp wheel flange it could pick even a good tight point.

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