Saturday, November 22, 2008

USFS sues railroad for starting fire

The U.S. Forest Service has filed a lawsuit against the Union Pacific Railroad for starting a 2002 fire in Price Canyon in Utah. The fire burned 3,200 acres and the government is seeking $653,364 in restitution for suppression and rehab costs.

The suit also names MotivePower, the company that installed and maintained the turbo charger which is blamed for starting the fire.

Fires caused by railroads are much more numerous than people think. Most railroad fires are caused by improperly maintained turbo chargers on the engines. If not maintained, large pieces of red-hot carbon can be blown out of the turbo chargers, starting fires. A smaller percentage of railroad-caused fires originate from brakes that lock up, become super-heated, disintegrate and shower the area with hot metal. I once responded to a series of 11 fires over several miles that started from hot brakes.

A cause and origin fire investigator, looking for what started a fire near railroad tracks, can usually find many pieces of carbon along the tracks. To definitively say that a single piece started a particular fire can be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

In some parts of the country, including northwest Indiana, railroads have gotten a free ride. They save money by reducing the maintenance on their turbo chargers, start fires, then many times get away with it.

I know of one instance where a National Park Service manager directed that cases against railroads not be pursued, because the railroads might then be temped to reduce the vegetation along their tracks through the park by using herbicides.


crs224akameema said...

Our area is plagued with train started grass and brush fires, mainly in the spring before new growth greens up the dead, dry stuff alongside the tracks. Most of these are blamed on 'hot boxes', over-heated brakes. One several years ago caused fires over a 10 to 12 mile stretch, with the largest starting a brush fire that spread up a large hill, taking about 100 firefighters (all volunteers) from over a dozen companies to bring under control. Supposedly there are hot box sensors on the trains, do they work, are they looked at, who knows?

Bill Gabbert said...

Trying to work with a railroad to prevent their fires can be frustrating. They have a bureaucracy that makes the U.S. government look simple.

One thing that DOES get their attention is closing the tracks to further train traffic while a train-caused fire is burning near the tracks. You may need to do this for the safety of firefighters. If it is a busy railroad, you WILL get their attention. You might consider making this a standard operating procedure...having dispatch call the railroad and closing the tracks.

Another way to close the tracks, according to stories I've heard, is to provide an electrical connection from one rail to the other. I have seen this done with jumper cables or tow chains. The story is that this sends a signal to approaching trains that another train is on the tracks... and they stop. I can't vouch for the validity of this technique.

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