Safety, Macro and Micro

The other day I happened to check my Facebook feed for activity in a group I belong to. This group is dedicated to the (memory of the) Denver & Rio Grande Western. Anybody who knows me or has been to my site knows that I’m a huge fan. Anyway, there I was scrolling through the activity, when lo and behold I saw an image that I recognized. It was of the side of a GP40 with a serious scrape along the cab side. Aha, methinks (methought?), that’s a photo from a web page on my site. I had a brief glow of satisfaction that someone had linked to my material, until I began to read the comments.  Uh oh, it turns out that there was some dispute about the description of the accident being documented on my web page.

Now, this particular page was about an accident that occurred in 1992 in the Spanish Fork Canyon in Utah. I was not present; I did not witness it; I am (or was) actually pretty ignorant of the geography where the incident occurred. Rightfully shame-faced, I corrected the description that had been given me by the contributor of the material, apologized to the troops unit by unit like Patton, and then fell on my own sword. Pretty neat trick writing a blog entry after falling on one’s sword, huh? I’ll explain how that works later.

I don’t know about your brain, but mine has an annoying habit of jumping all over the map sometimes. The online brohaha over the incident at Sheep Creek got me thinking about other train wrecks, which jumped me over to the eastern slope of the Rockies and back to 1991. One night in September, an eastbound manifest was coming down South Boulder Canyon when it came around a corner and into a massive rockslide. The resulting collision sent two locomotives down the side of the mountain and killed two career railroaders. I still have newspaper clippings (remember those?) that my mother sent to me, complete with color photos and suitably-somber text. This dreadful accident happened along one of the most picturesque segments of the Ski Train‘s route, so we often passed over the site. I would always look for the memorial on the west portal of tunnel 26 and point them out (again) to the kids and wife. Somber stuff indeed.

Never satisfied with being just a little somber, my brain then rewound back six more years to an even more terrible accident, this one on the BN just east of Broomfield, Colorado. In case you don’t recall it, two trains collided head-on underneath the US36 overpass, killing five crew and destroying the bridges. Curiosity being what it is, I googled the wreck and ended up reading through the NTSB Accident Report.  The whole thing.

Wow. Talk about grim reading. Talk about a needless tragedy. Talk about frustrating. The whole thing was avoidable, as most accidents are when proper procedure is carefully followed. You can read it for yourself, but it was a maelstrom of human error, carelessness, inattention to detail… a classic Swiss-cheese scenario. You know, this is where you stack several pieces of Swiss cheese together and try to see through it.  Most of the time you can’t see through it because the holes don’t line up; at least one slice is solid right there. But every once in a while… the holes line up.

When enough steps are missed, processes not followed, processes not sufficiently comprehensive, people too careless, if enough factors are out of whack, the holes just might line up and you have a catastrophe. Although not a railroader, I spent 25 years working in the coal mining industry. I don’t know how often people think about it, but there are a lot of ways to kill and maim when humans build and operate huge machines built of steel, digging in massive piles of earth (or under it). So, the company pounded SAFETY into our heads.  Safety before production. Safety above all else. Your number one priority is to return to your families safely. Maybe your company wasn’t like that, but mine– props to BHP Billiton– made it a religion. Sometimes we’d roll our eyes at the perceived excess, but despite that the concepts and practices found their way into our heads. Even so, occasionally someone would go apostate and pay the price for it.

Dude, you say, stop being such a bummer. Quit preaching to me! OK, fine, but here’s an application I bet you hadn’t considered: scale safety. Let’s think about a model railroad for a few moments. Like the real thing, it has: Wheels. Track. Freight (more on this below). Operators. Risks. Investment. Lots of time and money that went into it. Owners. Even customers, if you think of your layout’s visitors as such.

So what?

OK, maybe your layout is a few Tyco cars and a bunch of snap track nailed to a sheet of plywood. Mine is not. I probably have north of fifteen thousand dollars tied up in this. The other day I did a count and I have over a hundred locomotives! Some were pretty expensive, where others may be cheaper but have fifty or a hundred hours of my time put into their construction. This isn’t even counting hundreds of freight cars and my handcrafted passenger equipment. Add in trackwork, scenery, yada yada and I’ve got an enormous investment tied up in this scale world with which I amuse myself. Given that, should I not perhaps take some thought to protecting it?

We painstakingly recreate real-life equipment in miniature. We study traffic patterns and try to reproduce them in our miniature kingdoms. Heck, I even have a dispatch form that I fill out to control traffic movement in certain operating scenarios. I know people who have radio headsets and crew chiefs to manage operations. Why not put a little effort into scale-sized safety practices?

Let’s elaborate. Say that your scale-sized engineer has just climbed up onto the lead unit. In real life he and the conductor (post-1986) are running air tests, checking train orders, and any number of other tasks. But we, the model railroader, just hit the throttle and take off. But wait! Where exactly am I taking this train? Is the track clear? Have I bothered to verify switch alignments? Have I inspected my train? Do I pay attention to it while it’s rolling to make sure nothing’s dragging a wheel? Maybe we need a procedure or two to make sure our ducks are aligned before we highball outta town.

And what if you haven’t run the railroad in a few weeks?  How do you know that you didn’t leave something undone, or hidden?  Maybe the cat has paid a visit. Maybe somebody bumped the layout and derailed a few things. Maybe you left a set of pliers in the middle of North Yard. Maybe an inspection of the property is in order. First.

I have dozens of coal hoppers. In recent years I’ve gotten lazy (or bold) and have begun to use loose coal loads in a lot of my cars. Actual coal, some of it– a benefit of working for a coal mine is that you can acquire coal. It must be crushed and screened, but that’s for another post. Anyway, what if I forget that I’ve left a second train behind my helix, and sideswipe it with a dozen open-top hoppers full of coal? Well, that’s a risk.  Or several risks. One risk is that you’ll have a LOT of scale-sized coal spilled all over creation. Ask me how I know about this.

Other risks can be as simple as dropping that $175 Kato locomotive onto the cement, or breaking off those tiny little details that took you hours to install on another piece of rolling stock, or shattering some assembly that can only be replaced after hours of online hunting. My time is pretty valuable; how much is your time worth to you?

Do you have any rail that perches above a precipice? Have you ever run any cars onto the tile from four feet up? Maybe (especially in trouble spots) we should install some mitigating controls like a net, or a piece of plexiglass, or some other barrier. I know that I’m long overdue for some risk management projects.  They’re not as interesting or exciting as creating some scratch-built wonder, but they might protect one you’ve already made.  You never think disaster will happen to you… until it does.

No, we’re not likely to kill anybody with our scale railroads. But there’s plenty of risk to manage. Initiate a little operating discipline, and your next open-house might be a whole lot less embarrassing!

Oh, and as to falling on one’s sword?  It’s best if certain practices are kept

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