Early in the morning on Saturday July 6th, 2013 five locomotives and 73 tank cars carrying crude oil were parked about 12.5 km uphill (track distance) from the small idyllic Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic about 210 km east of Montreal. Apparently, the sole train engineer had finished his shift and left the train (locomotives running) a few hours earlier to get some sleep in the town; the train sat unmanned awaiting the arrival of the next engineer. Something went horribly wrong; the tank cars uncoupled from the locomotives and started rolling downhill and gathering speed as they headed towards the small town.
Map 1 (from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23221939 ) shows the town location within the province of Quebec in Canada and the general route of the oil train near the town. North is upward for all of the following maps.
Map 2 below shows a satellite image from Google Earth of the town and nearby lake. The red vertical line is for scale, with a length representing a 15 km distance.
Quoting from this article:
“According to the (town) website, it was one of 52 municipalities in Quebec to receive a "Four Blossoms" rating from the provincial organization "Les Fleurons du Quebec," which rewards municipalities for attractive greenery. It was also ranked among the first eight municipalities in Quebec to earn a "Carbon responsible" attestation, for climate-change measures, from the Enviro-access consulting company.”
Awards won by Lac-Mégantic
Still this is an incredibly fast speed that is hard to believe. Is this ridiculous? Re-examine the images (Map 7) above of the wreck zone, and observe that for more than half the train to completely derail and pancake (>44 tank cars) required an extremely high derailment speed. Going even one step further, let us now assume that there was even more friction, for example from more hydraulic braking action on the individual tank cars, such that the total frictional acceleration reduction was reduced by 50% to 0.0478 m/s2. Rolling time and derailment speed would respectively now become 723 seconds and 34.6 m/s (125 km/hr or 78 mph). I doubt this is fast enough to cause the level of pancaking and derailment distance observed, so my guess on the derailment speed would be between the two previous numbers. The train “black-box” should come out with accurate numbers after it is analyzed.
Given that train tank car transport of crude oil has increased by 28,000% in the last 5 years (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/07/07/lac-megantic-explosion-oil_n_3558647.html ) without a corresponding increase in safety inspections (and even cost cutting reductions) it is virtually certain that the frequency of accidents will increase. Pipelines are no answer to transporting oil, given that we are undergoing abrupt climate change. In fact, increases in the frequency, severity, and geographical regions of extreme weather events due to jet stream behavior completely changing due to rapid climate change is also greatly increasing the risk of oil transport by rail and pipeline from flooding, drought, heat waves, and extremely large temperature swings over short periods of time. In fact all infrastructure is being severely compromised by extreme weather. As the people in Calgary, Toronto, India, Europe, and many other places around the world are discovering first hand.
Paul Beckwith is a part-time professor with the laboratory for paleoclimatology and climatology, department of geography, University of Ottawa. He teaches second year climatology/meteorology. His PhD research topic is “Abrupt climate change in the past and present.” He holds an M.Sc. in laser physics and a B.Eng. in engineering physics and reached the rank of chess master in a previous life.