Thursday, July 25, 2013

Another Rail Joint?

The derailment of the French commuter train outside Paris a few weeks ago was blamed on the exact same thing blamed for the Metro-North derailment in Connecticut back in May..
A rail joint that worked loose from a track switching point appears to have caused France’s worst train accident in years, said Pierre Izard, an official with the national rail company, SNCF, on Saturday...
Railway investigators discovered that a metal clip joining two rails as part of the switch, which guides trains from one track to another, had worked loose and disconnected from its normal position, said Mr. Izard, the SNCF’s director for infrastructure. “It broke away, became detached and came out of its housing,” he said at a news conference at the scene. “It moved into the center of the switch, and in this position it prevented the normal passage of the train’s wheels and seems to have caused the derailment.”
The story quotes the French Minister of Transport as saying the blame was 'mechanical, not human'.  Now we have the Spanish rail disaster.  Already the Spanish are saying they are operating under the "assumption" it was an accident without the slightest bit of investigation having taken place yet.  And here is how the New York Times reported it:
A high-speed passenger train that was reportedly traveling at more than double the speed limit derailed just outside a station in northwest Spain on Wednesday evening, killing at least 60 of those on board, according to local news reports.
That was the very first sentence in their story--it appears they've found the probable cause already.  Now, speed may end up being the cause when all is said and done.  Did the engineer survive?  The Times claims they used unidentified sources that leaked to a Spanish website (real hard-hitting journalism there).

But even if speed was the cause it doesn't explain the event, such as why the hell any engineer be going that fast on a territory he/she should know like the back of their hand, and in good weather?

One thing's for sure.  The Times lede indicates a trend as to how the press tends to handle disasters of this nature anymore. Innocent assumptions are made when the news media attention is greatest, then the press is locked out of comment while investigations crawl along for years, and people tend to forget.  For those who have forgotten this is the THIRD passenger railroad crash since May in a western country, and it might have been four had the plot to crash a passenger train in Canada have succeeded--all in the shadow of intelligence captured in bin Laden's lair that urged AQ to go after railroads:
Starting in February 2010, Al Qaeda reportedly discussed tampering with train tracks at a valley or a bridge. Counterterrorism officials say they believe the derailment plot was only in the initial planning stages, and there is no recent intelligence to suggest any active plan.
We even have an unexplained oil train disaster in Canada with loose ends still remaining. And this Spanish crash occurred in a city with Christian religious symbolism during a religious event.  At what point does anything become a trend?


The video getting saturation coverage all over the web that shows the train literally flying off the tracks seems to support the Times' overspeed story.  It's hard to tell whether anything was out of sorts on the rails along the curve in the distance but it certainly appears the train was going so fast that it might have derailed no matter what.   That's probably the 'assumption' the Spanish authorities were working under.   

That begs an even bigger question--why?   Why would any experienced and rational engineer be taking curves at double the track speed, especially if he were familiar with the territory?   Were guys on his circuit trying to outdo each other on their engineer prowess?   Sounds pretty crazy, simply for the fact that the trains are monitored by dispatchers, management, and computers while being observed by track workers, etc.  Somebody would had to have been looking the other way to allow such shenanigans keep happening.  It would be helpful to know what the average speed is on that curve for similar trains. 

Reports are saying some kind of overspeed failsafe device wasn't working.  If it was deliberately disabled it wouldn't be the first time such a mechanical safety device was taken out of service to make things easier, etc, such as 'dead man's pedals'.   The line in question is relatively new, built within the last two years, so maybe it was experiencing glitches.  This also brings up the question as to how familiar the engineer was with the territory.  And what's the track speed on straightaways for that route? 

One thing of note--the availability of video.   If there was video of every crash it would make the investigator's job so much easier.   For instance, if there was video of TWA 800 crashing it would have perhaps changed the history of the investigation.


The posted speed on the straightaways on the line was indeed over 100 mph.  It would definitely be called a "high speed train" in America.   So the question remains as to why an engineer would knowingly take the curve without decelerating.  Lots of factors involved there.   

As to video, take a look at this video from inside the Southwest jet whose nose gear collapsed on landing at La Guardia this past week.   Certainly seems like it dropped and pitched down at the last second, which probably allowed the NTSB to announce that the gear collapsed because it was first to touch down.   That brings up a variety of possible explanations while taking away the ability to spin the event or create a conspiracy theory.   Unfortunately it may also remind people that human beings operate large transportation machinery and sometimes they make mistakes.  


Instapundit links to the Barcepundit regards the Times and other media outlets jumping all over the driver's (what we know as an engineer) supposed need for speed based on a few unearthed Facebook posts showing a speedometer from a train to apparently explain the accident.  That was a part of the immediate rush to judgment I was referring to in this post.   It's as if they couldn't wait to blame "driver error" so they could move quickly away from any other inconvenient explanations, even before an official investigation--or any investigation.   Funny, the Times has no penchant to rush to any judgment on the various 'phony scandals' plaguing the Obama administration right now, even the ones that include their personnel.

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