Editorial: Scrutiny needed in wake of train tragedy
A sun-kink. The average person probably has never heard that term before. And yet, it's one we all should become more aware of in the wake of a train derailment and subsequent bridge collapse that killed a Glenview couple earlier this month.
Sun-kinks result in the buckling of train tracks in extreme heat. A preliminary investigation points to that as the cause of the July 4 derailment that led to the deaths of Burton and Zorine Lindner, who were crushed after a Union Pacific Railroad freight train carrying coal derailed and then fell on and collapsed a bridge. The Lindners were underneath.
Transportation writer Marni Pyke reported in a Sunday story that there have been six cases of sun-kinks from 2008-2011. Sen. Dick Durbin says the latest accident suggests there may need to be better training and preparation in handling track issues in hot-weather conditions like we've experienced this summer.
"I encourage you to do everything you can to make certain your industry has the proper training, inspection plans and committed personnel to deal with excessive weather events," Durbin wrote in a letter to the American Association of Railroads.
We couldn't agree more. We are not saying the accident could be avoided; that will come out in the investigation. But Pyke reported that UP officials disclosed that a signalman noted a problem with the track on July 4, when temperatures reached 102 degrees, and called in an expert to advise him what to do. The train derailed in the meantime.
"I think the issue comes down to detecting and acting on suspicion that the track was becoming deformed on this hot day," Northwestern University transportation professor Ian Savage told Pyke.
A freak accident for sure. But it can't be dismissed. We think the railroads are aware of that. Yet, in a follow-up story Monday, Pyke paraphrases a state employee disconcertingly questioning the focus on derailments when so many more fatalities and injury-causing accidents occur on roads and highways. What that person says is true as far as statistics go — but that doesn't mean the agencies responsible for safety on the rails should ever get complacent. The potential for broad disaster, especially in this rail-heavy area, is too great.
"The big worry and concern is when you have hazardous materials involved in a derailment," Savage told Pyke. "Bad things can leak out and go into the groundwater. These are real issues if a tanker car catches fire."
According to Pyke, there were 1,511 derailments in Illinois from 2002 to 2011. Most were minor, low-speed incidents in rail yards. But some got more attention because they caused either commuter delays, property damage or, as in the case of the Lindners, loss of life.
We urge the railroads and agencies that govern them to study closely what happened in this case and take the steps necessary to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.
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