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The worst rail disasters in freight history

The ongoing crisis in Ohio from the Norfolk Southern train derailment reminds the industry of the critical importance of safety. However, as devastating as this accident is to the area, its environment and its wildlife, damage from some earlier derailments has been immeasurably worse. While technology and regulations have dramatically improved safety and saved lives, there is still a long way to go.

Here are some of the most impactful freight train derailments in world history.

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

One of the deadliest freight train derailments happened relatively recently. July 6, 2013, Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was nearly destroyed after a runaway train loaded with 203,000 gallons of petroleum crude oil crashed into the center of the small town. According to a 2018 article from BBC looking back on the accident, 47 people died in what investigators originally believed was an avoidable accident. Three Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company employees — the engineer, operations manager and the man in charge of rail circulation — were charged with criminal negligence but were acquitted after a three-month trial.

The town is still recovering from the disaster.

The train was parked with the locomotive still running to keep its air-braking system on, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. However, not enough hand brakes were applied as it sat on a downward slope. Overnight, the parked train’s engine caught fire. Firefighters arrived and turned off the engine, resulting in part of the braking system also shutting down.

At 1 a.m., shortly after the firefighters left the scene with the fire extinguished, the train began rolling. Eventually it jumped the tracks at 65 mph, destroying 40 buildings and causing oil to seep into the soil and nearby river.

New standards in rail safety were put in place following the tragedy in an effort to prevent a recurrence.

Viareggio, Italy

In the summer of 2009, an axle of the first car on a freight train cargoed with liquefied petroleum gas broke, causing the train to derail and explode, according to The New York Times. The ensuing fires collapsed five buildings, killed 32 people and left 100 homeless.

Citizens criticized the Italian prime minister for allowing the shipment of hazardous materials through a residential town.

“We saw a ball of fire rising up to the sky,” witness Gianfranco Bini told The Associated Press. “We heard three big rumbles, like bombs. It looked like war had broken out.”

Los Angeles

A major accident on The Southern Pacific Railroad near the San Bernardino neighborhood of Los Angeles killed numerous people and left lasting emotional and physical damage in the community. The Los Angeles Times reported that the train was 3,000 tons heavier than was estimated, revealed in a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. It was traveling at 90 mph with one of its brake sets disconnected.

The conductor was unable to slow the train as it went around the bend on a slight incline and it derailed. Two rail employees were killed in the initial crash. But almost two weeks later when residents started to return home, a 14-inch underground gas pipeline caught fire due to damage during the derailment cleanup.

Ninety percent of Las Vegas’ gasoline was reported to travel through the pipeline. Three hundred thousand gallons of fuel erupted in the air, catching on fire, killing more people and destroying even more homes. There are conflicting reports on how many deaths in total are related to the train derailment.

Weyauwega, Wisconsin

A Wisconsin Central freight train derailed on March 4, 1996, at 5:45 a.m. It was filled with petroleum liquid gas, like the incident in Italy, but also carried two tank cars filled with sodium hydroxide. A massive fire broke out after the crash, forcing firefighters to abandon any attempt at containing the blaze after 45 minutes and instead focus on evacuating residents, according to a local news report from Spectrum News 7.

The continuing fire meant the potential for a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE. The condition occurs when pressurized liquid inside a vessel reaches temperatures higher than its boiling point. It was likely the train cars would not be able to contain the pressure and would explode. Thankfully, that is not what happened.

Officials immediately shut down the natural gas line running to the town because it was located directly underneath the crash. The fire was not fully extinguished until March 8. Locals were unable to return to the area for more than two weeks. No one was killed in the fire, but the damage was extensive.

As more regulation and innovation come to rail, there may be fewer such disasters in the future.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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