The evening of January 5, 2005, was dry and cool in Graniteville, South Carolina. At 6:10, a 12-car Norfolk Southern freight train pulled up to the Avondale Mills textile plant, and Jim Thornton, a conductor with 18 years’ experience, climbed down from the locomotive to open a switch and let the train roll onto a siding. It was getting close to the hour by which, according to law, the crew had to quit for the day and rest. After the workers had shut down the train, Thornton called a taxi to take him, the engineer, and the brakeman to a nearby motel. It never occurred to him that, for the first time in his life, he’d failed to check the position of a switch that he’d opened. All he thought, as the crew piled into the taxi was, “Lord, mission accomplished.”
Seven hours later, a second Norfolk Southern freight train—two locomotives, 25 loaded cars, and 17 empties—approached Graniteville at 49 miles an hour. The engineer expected to pass through at full speed. Instead, the open switch shot him onto the siding. He saw the parked train and tried to stop, but it was hopeless. Both locomotives and the first 16 cars of his train derailed; the engineer was killed. Three of the cars contained chlorine, a common industrial chemical; one of them sheared open.
A dense white cloud of chlorine gas billowed through Graniteville. At 2:40 in the morning, police rousted 5,400 people from their beds and evacuated them. Eight more died; 72 sickened. The disaster helped push the Avondale Mills plant, which had been making cloth in Graniteville for 161 years, out of business. Four thousand people, some of them fifth-generation Avondale employees, lost their jobs. Seven years after the wreck, people in Graniteville are still sick.
Trains carry 40 percent of America’s freight as well as 650 million passengers a year, and in general, their safety record is good and getting better. Most of the 2,000 accidents a year are minor. But when trains collide or derail, the results can be spectacularly ugly. Last June, two Union Pacific trains somehow ended up on the same Oklahoma track and collided head-on with such force that the locomotives almost fused. Three crewmembers died. Three weeks later, 17 cars of a 98-car Norfolk Southern train went off the rails in Columbus, Ohio, busting open three cars of denatured alcohol and igniting a fire that forced the evacuation of about 100 people. A CSX coal train jumped the track in Ellicott City, Maryland, in August; six of its 21 cars tumbled into a parking lot, killing two young women bystanders. In November, a Union Pacific train plowed into a Veterans Day parade float in Midland, Texas, killing four. Later that month, a CSX train derailed on a bridge near Philadelphia International Airport, tearing open a tanker filled with 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and sending 71 people to the hospital.
Most worrisome are the 75,000 carloads of breathable poisons that trundle around the nation’s tracks every year at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour. The two most common are chlorine—the Graniteville chemical—and anhydrous ammonia, both of which can kill in particularly grisly ways if inhaled. Graniteville was the country’s worst rail accident involving breathable toxins, but there have been two others in the first decade of the 21st century: Minot, North Dakota, in 2002 (anhydrous ammonia; one dead), and Macdona, Texas, in 2004 (chlorine; three dead). At Minot, the problem was poorly inspected rails and inadequate tank-car construction, but at Macdona, the cause was as simple as at Graniteville: The engineer failed to notice a slow-down signal and blew past.
Could happen to anybody.
As bad as these accidents were, they could someday be remembered the way we recall the 1993 World Trade Center bombing—as a harbinger of worse to come. Imagine a railcar full of chlorine bursting on the CSX tracks less than a mile away from a big public event on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.—an inauguration, say, or a concert. The resulting cloud could kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda might do it, but it’s more likely that a $55,000-a-year engineer, in the 10th hour of his shift, would simply nod off at the controls. Human factors cause more than a third of all rail accidents.
Although the railroad keeps our 21st-century economy running, it’s essentially a 19th-century technology. Rail operators have known for decades that technological fixes could prevent rail disasters caused by the kind of human errors committed at Macdona and Graniteville, but they have been dragging their feet because those fixes are expensive and complicated. Congress is now making them get it done. But the railroads could also cheaply and humanely achieve big safety leaps simply by improving the working conditions of engineers—something they’re even less enthusiastic about doing.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.