Month: January 2017

“Black Gold” on the Shiny Irons

The genre of science fiction has given us innumerable hours of entertainment, thought-provoking scenarios of utopian and dystopian futures, and enticing glimpses of technology to come. A common theme, particularly in the utopian futures, is the limitless availability of energy. With power sources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the techno-future NEVER runs out of gas… though Bill Pullman, John Candy and company were not so prescient in “Spaceballs“;

LONE STARR What’s that?
BARF I don’t know. I don’t know. We’re losing power. Why? ‘Cause  we’re outta gas.
LONE STARR We must’ve burned it up [using the] hyperactive [drive].
BARF I told you we should’ve put more than five bucks worth in.

Here in the real world, the Arc Reactor which powered Tony Stark’s Iron Man isn’t available… the Series 800 Energy Cell found inside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator hasn’t made it to market… and “human batteries”, the dark energy source from “The Matrix” hopefully never will. Most of the energy consumed in the United States comes from more mundane sources, indeed, most of it still comes from underground.

With fossil fuels still making up 81% of our energy diet, we’re a ways off from the clean, limitless (or at least renewable) energy of the sci-fi future. Even with wind farms springing up like sunflowers on the high plains, and with the U.S. energy economy adding about 125 solar panels every minute, we will be pulling petroleum products from the ground for several more years at least.

A monumental increase in available resources benefits no one unless those resources can be brought to the table. After extraction, crude oil can ride to the refineries by pipeline, by truck, by train or by boat, with pipelines carrying the largest share.  From

In both the United States and Canada, more crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas are transported in pipelines than by all other modes combined, using the unit of ton-mile which is the number of tons shipped over number of miles

Though the Irons carry a meager 3% of the crude oil ton-miles, other economic and logistic factors are driving an increase in the volume of crude shipped by rail.

What happens to all that crude? Here, from 2014, is a breakdown of the products made from a carload of crude oil:


New supplies in Texas and North Dakota are located in regions not served by existing pipelines, and rail is the best available method for moving these resources, however, a spate of accidents involving crude tank cars has led to a reassessment of the technology. In 2013 an estimated 400,000 carloads of crude were transported on the Irons, totaling about 11.5 billion gallons of oil. Even though an impressive 99.99% arrived without incident, 1.15 million gallons of crude was spilled. Environmental effects of these spills are very serious, requiring expensive and time-consuming cleanup. The volatile nature of the cargo can also result in explosions and fire, destroying property and taking lives. That same year in the small town of Lac Megantic, Ontario, Canada, a bizarre series of events conspired to send a 70+ cars carrying crude oil barreling into the downtown area. The resulting explosion and fire claimed the lives of 47 people and dramatically illustrated the need for safer oil tank cars.

Petroleum, literally “rock oil” from the Latin words “petra” and “oleum”, has been a part of human society for at least 4000 years. The walls of Babylon were mortared with asphalt, the Phoenician ships of the Punic Wars were caulked with pitch, and the alleged medicinal properties of the heavy black liquid spurred the 4th century Chinese to drill oil wells using bamboo. In the 16th century at Baku (on the Caspian Sea in what is now Azerbaijan ), hand dug wells over 100 feet deep brought oil to the Persian Empire. The first modern oil well was drilled near there in 1848. The next year, Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner distilled “kerosine” from coal and the modern petrochemical industry born. In 1897, the price of whale oil was 40 cents a gallon; kerosene was 7 cents and the whale oil lamp had ceased to burn. By the time John D. Rockefeller organized the Standard Oil Trust, the new fuel was being hauled half way around the globe in 23-masted vessels known as “kerosene clippers” to serve the insatiable thirst of Chinese “Mei Foo” lamps.
While ships, both sail and steam, were great for carrying Rockefeller’s oil to China, they were not so well versed at carrying it to Kansas. By the time of the Pennsylvania Oil Boom of 1865, the Shiny Irons were well established as a heavy hauling solution. That boom oil was transported on flatcars which had wooden staves banded together to form a “tank” on top… basically a barrel on a flatcar. Wrought iron, and later steel tanks, soon replaced the wooden barrels, and in 1903 tank car companies developed the first safety standards… 10,000 tank cars were on the rails by then. Tank car construction techniques and safety standards would continue to be improved as different commodities found their way onto the Irons. Riveted construction gave way to welds, better sealed and protected loading and unloading valves were designed, tanks were made stronger and tank heads (the rounded ends of the tank are called the “heads”) were made resistant to puncture.
Until recently, the majority of tank cars used to transport crude oil were designed to the DOT-111 specification, circa 1968. These include the cars involved in the Lac Megantic crash. Several of the DOT-111 cars had been retrofitted by their owners with increased protection, however events had made it clear an entirely new specification was needed. The Association of American Railroads had issued specification CPC-1232 which mandated increased strength and thermal protection for cars ordered after October 1, 2011 and destined to haul crude oil or ethanol. A completely new set of marching orders came from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, with the Final Rule published in the Federal Register on May 8, 2015. This comprehensive overhaul of tank car standards not only addresses the cars themselves, but also , but also speed regulations, track integrity, crew certification, implementation timelines and many other related issues. The construction standards mandated include the use of stronger and thicker steel for tank construction, the application of a thermal “blanket” around the tank, jacketing and insulation to enclose and protect the tank as well as changes to better protect the valves on top and bottom of the tank. The intent of the new construction standard is to greatly reduce the chances of a tank being ruptured in a derailment, as well as to greatly increase the time an unruptured tank can be exposed to fire before the contents get hot enough to cause an explosion. Other issues addressed by the rule are designed to minimize the chances of a tank car coming off the rails. Starfire Engineering is already up to speed, with a new design in place for a DOT-117 specification rail car;

An insulated and jacketed Crude Oil Tank Car designed to new D.O.T. 117 specifications was completed for a manufacturer. Using innovative design methods, Starfire started from a clean sheet of paper to design the car. The tank car features a stub sill strong enough to meet or exceed the latest load requirements for Crude Oil Tank Cars. Starfire designers communicated with vendors chosen by the manufacturer to select materials and components best suited to the application. Upon completion of the design, Starfire produced a complete Manufacturing Drawing package, Component and Specialty Item lists and Bills Of Materials to facilitate manufacture of the car. Additionally, Analysis Reports were prepared detailing the results of Starfire’s Engineering Analysis. A submission package was prepared for regulatory agency New Design Approval and Starfire worked closely with the regulatory agencies and the manufacturer until the final Design Approval was received. See our web site for more information.

We’ll be using petroleum products for quite a while, and delivering the raw material will continue to be a contentious issue, as all of the available transport methods have drawbacks. Pipeline ruptures and spills have had tragic environmental consequences. A 2013 pipeline failure in North Dakota — caused when a lightning strike damaged the pipeline – put over 800,000 gallons of crude on the ground, and in 2015, a break in a pipeline near Santa Barbara, California resulted in 100,000 gallons going into the Pacific Ocean, and a cleanup bill topping $70million. Water transport is not immune to failure, as the 2014 Kirby Barge spill near Port Arthur, Texas illustrates. This accident, caused by a collision, leaked 168,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay. And 25 years later, oil still fouls the water and the beaches of Prince William Sound, Alaska from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989;

Oil seeps from the rocks on the shore of Prince William Sound, Alaska

Spills from both pipelines and water transport tend to be harder to contain and more expensive to clean up. Rail tank car spills are much smaller, but the nature of the mode of transport means they can occur almost anywhere; in a remote area on the plains, in a mountain river gorge, or in a metropolitan area. More important than the “pipeline-or-rail” debate is the imperative of making BOTH methods as safe as they can be made;

So there are two separate arguments to make. You could say that more-frequent rail accidents make crude-by-rail an inherently more dangerous game than pipelines, because locomotives travel at high speeds and are more likely to explode and kill people. Or you could also say that larger spills from pipelines are worse, because they’re tough to clean up and pose long-term risks to human and environmental health.

Or, you could choose a third argument: that both rail and pipelines pose serious risks to human health, and instead of forcing people to choose between two dangerous options, we should focus on improving the safety of both modes of transport….

Rail transport offers the logistical advantages of being able to route the product to the places it is needed, and of being able to respond almost immediately to an increase in demand for capacity. The new safety requirements for crude oil tank cars will reduce the likelihood of cars coming off the track, and will greatly reduce the amount of oil spilled when accidents do occur.

… and making the Irons as safe as possible will keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!


Sherman’s Neckties

“How Now Brown Cow and the Moo Wave” , one of the featured acts on the wonderful children’s show “The Muppets”, had a big hit with a tune called “Danger’s No Stranger”. Counseling their audience to avoid situations where injury might occur;

(If you get hurt) I don’t know how I’d spend my days
(So stay alert) When crossing streets better look both ways
And half way cross, don’t change your mind
And learn to read that danger, danger sign (danger)

One of the perils referenced by the bovine band was “… [don’t] mention Sherman in Savannah”, a reference to U.S. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “scorched earth” march through Georgia and South Carolina. A major endeavor of the campaign was to disrupt and destroy the railroads leading into Atlanta. Union troops pulled up the tracks, burned the ties and scattered rail and spike to the winds, but within weeks, even days, the tracks were in use again. Finally an order was issued calling for;

“… twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bars simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of line they cannot be used again. Pile the ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral.”

Union soldiers making “Sherman’s Neckties”

Rails which had merely been bent could be straightened… heating the rail to red heat served to both permanently distort the shape of the rail and to compromise the strength of the steel, making straightening impossible. Rails were bent into pretzles, bent around trees, made completely useless. In the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia is a monument featuring a replica of a couple of “Sherman’s Neckties”.


Play A Train Song
In the twilight of life, country great Merle Haggard reminisces of his youthful fascination with the Irons…

“Oil Tanker Train”; the Hag, from his 2010 album “I Am What I Am”.

The Shiny Irons Get A “Brake”

Established in 1959, Stax Records is a label synonymous with “soul” music. In 15 years, Stax had nearly 250 songs chart in the R&B Top 100. A couple of Stax’ recording artists, William Bell and Otis Redding combined to give us an overpowering metaphor for “taking something for granted”; Bell’s 1961 signature song, later recorded by Redding… “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until the Well Runs Dry)”. Anyone who has driven, piloted, captained, steered or otherwise… motivated a vehicle has probably done so under the soothing illusion that the song alludes to. When we roll up to the intersection in our car, we believe the brakes will work. And, Bell’s metaphorical warning notwithstanding, we are very rarely disappointed. Still, you don’t miss the brakes until….

On the Shiny Irons, this same confidence is warranted. Every day, literally millions of tons of freight roll along the rails, and when the brakes are applied, the train stops! This was not always the case. During the early days of the fledgling industry, the size, weight and speed of trains roared ahead of brake performance. When Peter Cooper tasked his 1830 steam locomotive Tom Thumb in a race against a horse-drawn wagon, both vehicles had very much the same braking technology… which was, more or less, a mixture of force, luck and hope. The technology was usually a mechanical lever connected to some form of friction shoe; when the operator needed to stop, the lever was pulled and the shoe brought into contact with a wheel. As the Iron Horse grew larger and stronger, more wagons could be drawn, which led to the need for increased braking power. The mechanics of the wagon brake were simply multiplied, with a manually operated brake installed on each car. To operate the brakes, workers called brakemen were stationed atop the cars. In common with most of the industries in the early days of mechanization, railroaders worked a very dangerous field. At a signal from the locomotive whistle, the brakemen would turn a hand wheel which applied the friction shoes to the wheels. Each brakeman was responsible for the brakes on two, sometimes three cars, which left the unfortunate operator running along the tops of bouncing, jerking railcars, applying and releasing brakes as required. Needless to say, accidents were common, and a fall from the top of a car was often fatal.

Brakeman on the Roof of a Railcar

Additionally, the systems were terribly inefficient, with limited braking force applied through the vagaries of judgment, speed and strength of the brakemen.

Early on, powered brake systems began to appear on the Irons, such as the steam powered locomotive brake. This system used the locomotive boiler steam to apply brakes to the wheels of the locomotive. While this was a definite improvement, it could only be applied to the locomotive itself. Some form of powered braking for the rest of the train was needed. In 1855, William Loughridge patented a chain brake which offered a continuous braking system running the length of the train. While this finally allowed the brakemen to climb down from their dangerous perch, it was very limited in power, difficult and time-consuming to adjust, and very sensitive to misalignment. The vacuum brake system, and a similar compressed air system, came into vogue next. These used vacuum or compressed air to operate a piston which applied the friction shoe to the wheel. Flexible hoses running between cars carried the vacuum the length of the train. While these systems did allow powered braking to all the cars in the consist, they had several drawbacks, the most serious being that neither system was “fail-safe.” If one of the hoses between cars failed, or was not coupled, the cars “downstream” had no brakes. More critically, in the event of a train break, where a between-car coupler fails, the cars which separated from the train would be free-rolling, with no brakes. Two serious accidents in the U.K. led to new, safer systems being developed.

A devil’s brew of failures in 1876 led to the deaths of 14 in a three-train crash at Abbots Ripton, England. A passenger train was involved in a collision with a coal train, and another passenger train collided with the wreckage. Several factors leading to the crash included signals rendered inoperative by snow, and inadequate braking power available to the trains. In 1889, several cars of a train carrying passengers on a Sunday School excursion was decoupled from its locomotive because the power available was insufficient for an encounter with a steep grade. Blocks were placed behind the wheels of the idle cars, but the weight crushed the blocks and the train rolled down the hill. The resulting crash killed 89 passengers.

These crashes led to the Regulation of Railways Act in Britain.  Some of the measures contained in the Act were;

  • Mandatory introduction of fixed block signalling;
  • Mandatory introduction of interlocking of points and signals;
  • Mandatory introduction of continuous brakes;
  • Creation of the means to finance such measures, by issuing debenture stock;

A stint in the Army during the Civil War impressed young inventor George Westinghouse with the importance of the Shiny Irons to the industrialization of the United States. So much that, in 1869 he developed and patented a compressed air braking system for use on trains. The design was improved in 1872 to become the now familiar triple-valve controlled fail-safe brake system. The innovative design was met with skepticism from railroad management, prompting a now-famous exclamation from Cornelius Vanderbilt, captain of the New York Central Railroad;

As Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt told Westinghouse, “Do you pretend to tell me that you could stop trains with air?

Westinghouse proved his design with a demonstration, equipping a locomotive with an air pump and air tank, and fitting air cylinders and piping on all the cars. A jaunt from Pittsburgh, Pa. to Steubenville, Oh., using only the Westinghouse brake system convinced all concerned of the system’s workability and reliability… all concerned except the railroads. As it happened, the unconvinced parties at the railroads were mostly the “bean counters”, who did not want to spend the considerable sum of money needed to equip all the rolling stock with the new system. Soon, though, new regulations were enacted requiring the use of fail-safe braking systems. When Lorenzo Coffin became Iowa’s first railroad commissioner, he assisted in passing railroad safety mandates, including the first legal requirement for fail-safe train brakes. Following this lead, in 1893 the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law, mandating the use of fail-safe air brakes.

Though it seems complex, the Westinghouse brake is simple in operation.

Piping diagram for a 1909 Westinghouse 6-ET Air Brake system on a locomotive

The genius of Westinghouse’s system addresses the inherent problem with straight compressed air brakes – if the supply air is lost, Westinghouse’s system still works! The triple-valve is so called because it performs three functions: It charges the air tanks on each car, it applies the brakes, and it releases the brakes. In simple terms, the sequence of events is this;

The engineer applies the brakes by operating the locomotive brake valve. This causes a drop in pressure in the trainline (the trainline is the air line that runs the length of the train consist and carries air to all the cars’ brakes). The pressure drop in the trainline signals each car’s triple-valve to begin feeding air to the car’s brake cylinder from that car’s air reservoir. This will continue until maximum brake cylinder pressure is reached, or until the engineer releases the locomotive brake valve. When the engineer releases the locomotive brake valve, the pressure builds again in the trainline, signaling the triple valves to begin discharging the cars’ brake cylinder air pressure and at the same time begins recharging the cars’ air reservoirs.

The Westinghouse system operates the brakes when a DROP in line pressure is seen in the trainline, instead of operating them by pressurizing the trainline. With this approach, if the train breaks, isolating some of the cars from the locomotive, the trainline air pressure to those cars will quickly drop, and their brakes will automatically be applied by their triple-valves!

The modern application of the fail-safe also has an “emergency” air reservoir on each car which, in the event of a rapid application of brakes, will speed up the application of braking force to the cars’ brake cylinders. Other features allow the air brakes on a car to be manually released in order to to move the car, and allow modulation of the brake pressure if full braking is not needed. In addition to the air brakes, each car has a manually operated mechanical (usually chain-driven) hand brake which can be used when a car is disconnected from locomotive air pressure.

The Irons still see incidents and accidents caused by problems with train brakes, and these are overwhelmingly due to human error rather than mechanical failure. Train brakes today are more than adequate for the task, mechanically sound and simple to maintain, to set up, and to operate, and are extremely reliable. The days of brakemen running the tops of the cars are long gone, and no one misses them! Looking toward the future, the Irons see some new stopping technology on the horizon, including electronically controlled brakes which will eliminate the “lag time” it takes for changes in trainline pressure to make their way to the end of the consist. Also coming is positive train control, an industry-wide control technology which will locate and track all the trains at once, and coordinate their movements to greatly reduce the possibility of collision. This will allow the railroads to move more goods, faster, safer and with more precision.

… and this will keep the rails shiny!!


Little Toy Trains….
Scale model railroading is usually thought of as an aside to the larger railroad industry, however, one of the largest players on the Irons got its start building model trains. A jeweler and silversmith by trade, and an avid tinkerer by disposition, young Mathhias Baldwin would go on to found one of the largest industries of its time.

Baldwin Locomotive Works, circa. 1875

His original stationary engine survives in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., and a replica

Replica model of “Old Ironsides” at the Franklin Institute

of his last “toy train” lives in the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philly.


Play a Train Song….
“Stop That Train”…. Keith and Tex ask for an emergency application of the Westinghouse Air Brake…

from their 1967 album of the same name.