Warm Southern Breeze

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Canadian Train Wreck: Was it sabotage?

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Tuesday, July 9, 2013

By now, perhaps you’ve heard the tragic news that Lac-Mégantic – a small town with a population of 6000 in the Canadian province of Quebec, 155 miles (250km) from Montreal – has been devastated by a petrochemical explosion & fire subsequent to a train derailment in that town. Thirteen people are confirmed dead, and 50 are missing… their bodies possibly vaporized by the intense heat of the 72-car blast.

According to officials, some of whom remain unnamed, the train’s engineer was taking his required sleep break in a nearby motel, when, again, according to authorities, the train’s brakes “failed,” which then caused the train to begin rolling unabated for nearly 7 miles (11km) before crashing & burning.

In a related news item this morning, Edward Burkhardt, Chairman of the Board of Rail World Inc., and Chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway – the parent company of the railroad firm which owns the train – said “As the air pressure depletes, [the brakes] will become ineffective.” He made that remark after it was learned that the Fire Chief for the nearby small town of Nantes said that firefighters had responded to a call about a fire aboard that locomotive approximately five minutes after the engineer left, and less than three hours before the train appeared in Lac-Mégantic. Train company Officials inspected the train after that call, and found no damage.

Mr. Burkhardt also said Sunday night that “If the operating locomotive is shut down, there’s nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can’t be held in place any longer.” 

He added that the solitary engineer of the train shut down operations on four of the five locomotives – a standard operating procedure – in Nantes, before he went to Lac Mégantic to sleep, and added that the next engineer was probably due to arrive at daybreak. He also said that someone managed to shut down the fifth locomotive, and alleged that someone tampered with the fifth engine’s controls.

Trains brakes operate on a principle opposite how brakes of passenger automobiles & light duty trucks work.

Brakes on passenger automobiles & light duty trucks operates using hydraulic fluid to extend & apply pressure when the brakes are applied by an operator. If a leak occurs at any point in the system, the fluid leaks out, thereby making the brakes ineffective & useless, because the hydraulic fluid is used to exert pressure. In other words, no brake fluid = no pressure.

Brakes on trains are air brakes, which are also the type of brakes found on most commercial vehicles.

Air brakes are a fail-safe type braking system. That is, when the system fails, no harm can come from its failure, because it keeps things safe during failure.

Air brakes are charged with compressed air to release the train’s brakes, and pressure is reduced to apply them. By the late 1800’s, all railroads in the United States were required by law to equip their trains with automatic air brakes.

Although the reliability and features of the modern automatic air brake have improved significantly, it continues to operate on George Westinghouse’s same basic principle.

If brake pressure drops rapidly or at an uncontrolled rate, the brakes are applied, which is called an emergency application. This may occur from a variety of actions, either in response to the Engineer placing the automatic brake valve in the EMERGENCY position, from the opening of a conductor’s valve on a locomotive or car so equipped, from from the brake hoses between cars parting or bursting or any other equipment failure. Variations in the brake pressure cause the train brakes to apply or release. The rate at which the pressure in the brake pipe drops determines whether a service or an emergency application results.

In an air brake system, extremely powerful springs keep the brakes applied at all times. That is, at rest, the brakes are normally applied. Air pressure is used to release the brakes by compressing powerful springs, and thus keep them off of the braking surfaces. Air pressure is maintained by an air compressor system, which includes a pressure tank. When air leaks out of an air break system, the brakes begin to close (high tension springs begin to place pressure upon) the braking surfaces. In other words, no air pressure = brakes are applied.

Naturally, as any story develops, more details and commentary emerge. This story is no different.

In a story published July 8, 2013, Ed Burkhardt, Chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said the train company has evidence that the train was tampered. Speaking to news cadre, he said, “We have evidence of this. But this is an item that needs further investigation. We need to talk to some people we believe to have knowledge of this. We want to know what they know. There are a number of missing pieces here … but we’d like to have a complete idea about the cause. We are prepared to go in and do this very quickly; as soon as we can gain access to people and to the site.”

However, he did say that he did not believe the tragedy was the result of malicious pranksters, or terrorists.

What remains curious is how the brakes were released.

For the brakes to be released, they had to have been ACTIVELY released, because of their fail safe nature.

And, if the train was inspected after the fire, and all systems were found in perfect working order – as was reported – one would imagine the Inspector would have noticed any anomaly, or problem, and any such problem would have arisen AFTER the inspector departed.

That’s why I question if this act was sabotage.

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