Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Safety Railcar

From time to time I receive interesting emails from readers of this blog. Yesterday it was one from a designer of a new ‘Safety Railcar’ that caught my attention. The email was brief; “Please see my patent pending idea.” Attached was a .PDF copy of the Patent Application Document from the US Patent Office.

The Problem

Now I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog that one of the big problems with railcar derailment fires is getting the right fire-fighting equipment to the scene in a timely manner. For many burning liquids the use of water is probably going to be contraindicated, especially with fluids like crude oil and various fuels. Various fire-fighting foams have been developed and successfully used, but most small community fire companies do not have the equipment to use foam, nor should they be expected to stock the various types of foams that would be necessary to fight fires from the variety of flammable liquids transported by rail.

I have suggested that trains with large numbers of crude oil cars {now formally called Highly Hazardous Flammable Trains (HHFT) by FRA} should carry a train car containing the specific foam necessary to fight crude oil fires. The local fire departments would still have to have the foam equipment, but they would not need to stockpile the foam making material.

The Safety Railcar

Now Robert E. Glen has done me one better. He has designed a railcar that would contain not only the foam making material but the equipment to mix and dispense the foam as well. See the basic diagram of the car below.

Safety Rail Car Design

I am not going to go into any great detail on the design of the car. Robert has done that in patent document with a very detailed description of the components and their employment in a derailment fire. In brief, his design purports to provide for both automated fire-fighting based upon data obtained from sensors on the car and for traditional firefighters unrolling hoses from the car to fight a fire. The document suggests that the Safety Railcar would be deployed every 15 to 20 cars in a unit train, ensuring that in the event of a major derailment, there would be at least one Safety Railcar near the scene of the resulting derailment fire to provide at least initial fire-fighting response.


While I have done some untrained volunteer grass-fire fire-fighting and even helped haul 2” fire hoses (well away from the nozzle) on occasion, I am not a fire fighter, nor am I a railway design engineer. Having said all of that, this looks like an interesting concept that might be worth exploring.

Because of the expense of building railcars, I suspect that Robert’s work on this has been limited to paper design work. I really doubt that he has a working model available for testing. What would be helpful, I suspect is for some people with experience in the field taking a look at this proposal and seeing what holes can be poked in it. Robert has posted this information to the site for comments; that may be a more practical place for the technical discussion to take place rather than on this blog (though I would love to see reader comments).

Now on the practical side: if this is a workable idea, it will be a long road to get something like this into production and rolling down the rails. Railroads are not going to be big supporters, it would be like admitting that they have responsibility for preparing for accidents. Shippers are not going to be buying these cars because they will not produce any revenue. It is going to be either the government or insurance companies that demand that a service like this is provided.

Fortunately for the public (and unfortunately for Robert’s idea) there has been a significant reduction in the number and size of the crude-oil-train fires that we saw too frequently a couple of years ago. While HHFT restrictions and safety work by the railroads have contributed to the decline, the root cause is almost certainly the sharp reduction in the number of crude oil and ethanol shipments over the last two years for economic reasons.

There will be more crude-oil train derailments and the chances are still there for another Lac-Megantic type catastrophe. It looks like something like Robert’s Safety Train may be one of the tools that could prevent a derailment from turning into a catastrophe.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Not only for fire it could be used for chemical emergency's by using space for Chemical response equipment. That way it's use would cover all types of train loads and not just on fire. all emergency departments could carry a code to open the storage doors for needed responses tools or materials.

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