The 4th of July – it’s a day traditionally associated with family barbecues, parades, political speeches and fireworks – and searing summer heat.
This past July 4th, 2012 in Glenview, Illinois, was no exception to the rule. It was hot – over 100 degrees – and all around Illionois, roads buckled, lawns browned and people sought cover from the intensity of the temperatures.
Burton and Zorine Lindner decided to take a drive in their car, cruising through their hometown undoubtedly enjoying the day and the air conditioning. As they drove down Shermer Rd. at about 1:42 on that scorching afternoon, they approached a railroad viaduct as a Union Pacific freight train ran from the southwest, out of their view, and also approached the bridge.
The Lindners had probably driven under that bridge hundreds of times during their lives. They were probably aware that this bridge had been the scene of at least 4 derailments in the past 40-odd years. What they didn’t know was that it was about to happen again – and they were going to be the first people to lose their lives to the callous indifference of one of the biggest corporations in the United States, with a long history of placing human life at the bottom of their list of corporate priorities: The Union Pacific Railroad.
Earlier in the day, an inspector working for Union Pacific had been sent out to inspect the railway line that runs through Chicago and up to Wisconsin and passes through Glenview and its neighboring town, Northbrook. The inspector was looking for
As the Lindners’ car approached the Shermer Rd. bridge, an inspector for the Union Pacific was waiting for a supervisor to arrive at the bridge. This unnamed Union Pacific inspector had been sent out by the railroad to observe any deformation of the rails caused by the high temperatures the Chicago area was experiencing on July 4th. Union Pacific railroad, on very hot days, sends out teams of inspectors twice a day to look for “sun kinks”. These are sections of rail that overheat from a combination of the thermal expansion of metal when it’s heated as well as from the additional heating that occurs when heavy railcars pass over the track. The friction of the wheels is intensified depending on how heavily loaded the railcars are, which intensifies this heating. Modern railroads run on welded steel rails that don’t have the expansion joints that the old railroads had in between each section of rail. Engineers believe that this modern welded rail performs much better than the old rail system with expansion joints; but there are still problems that do occur with welded rail, where there is nowhere for the steel to expand to when it gets overheated. When that happens, the rails deform; sometimes they deform to such an extent that the wheels of the train run right off the track and a derailment occurs. “If anyone has any ideas [as to how to prevent ‘sun kinks’ from forming in overheated rails] we would love to be a first adopter of your technology” a Union Pacific engineer snidely told the audience at the Community Meeting held at Glenbrook North High School on July 17th.
The inspector saw something wrong. We still don’t know what he saw, and the Union Pacific officials, in their very superficial briefing at the Community Meeting last night wouldn’t tell us. But the unnamed inspector – who was intitially faulted in the press for not seeing or reporting anything wrong – saw something wrong and did what he or she was required to do: he called the information in to his superiors at Union Pacific.
Someone at the Union Pacific offices – we don’t know who and they aren’t telling anyone – received that call from the inspector at the Shermer Rd. bridge on July 4, 2012. The supervisors at UP should have been aware, as at least dozens of local citizens are, that there have been four derailments at this very bridge over the past 40 years or so. They should have realized the high likelihood that the anomaly being reported by their track inspector – a highly trained professional not given to “crying wolf” every time he sees a small ripple in the rails – was a serious one and that something needed to be done immediately about it, because this section of track is a very busy one: 25 very long freight trains pass over this track every day, carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in freight, some of which can include very hazardous material, according to Union Pacific officials.
“Do those trains ever carry explosive materials?” asked a resident of Glenview at the Community Meeting. Our trains running on that line are rated to carry “any kind of freight that our customers send us – provided that it is properly labeled” answered a Union Pacific spokesman. We’re allowed to carry “anything, anytime” he continued.
Back on July 4th, the train that was about to start passing over the Shermer Rd. bridge as the Lindners’ car approached was a coal train: more than 30 hopper cars were fully loaded with coal; each car was rated to carry as much as 260,000 lbs., give or take a couple thousand. The cars were coming from Wyoming and were headed to a coal-fired power plant in Wisconsin. “Why were the trains headed to Wisconsin coming through Chicago if they originated in Wyoming? Is that the most direct route?” asked another Glenview resident at the Community Meeting.
“That is the most direct route” on our system for these shipments answered another Union Pacific spokesman.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here: let’s get back to the events that were transpiring on July 4th as the Lindners’ car approached the viaduct.
The inspector who had called in the track anomaly had called in his report to Union Pacific – when he or she did this, we do not know, because the Union Pacific feels it has no need to report details like this to the public, apparently.
The UP official who took that call – again an unnamed person – made another call: he ordered a senior inspector to travel out to the Shermer Rd. bridge to see for himself if this track anomaly was serious enough to warrant shutting down the rail line, over which another train was about to pass, loaded with millions of pounds of coal, worth tens of millions of dollars. Obviously, this Union Pacific official who decided to call out another inspector rather than risk the anger of his bosses by shutting down the track until that inspector could arrive must be having second thoughts about the wisdom of that decision now. Because while that senior inspector was heading out to the Shermer Rd. bridge in Glenview/Northbrook (it straddles the borderlines of both communities) cars and small trucks were passing back and forth under that bridge. Children were riding their bicycles under it; joggers were running under it. And a coal train was heading towards it, as were the Lindners, whose lives were about to end were also preparing to drive under this bridge.
It was a race against time. And, though no one knew it at that time, two human beings were about to lose the race.
As the Lindners’ car approached the bridge, the two lead locomotives of the coal train passed over it heading northeast.
This train’s load was so heavy that the train had three locomotives: two in the front, pulling the train, and one radio-controlled locomotive at the end, pushing the cars together. The idea is that by having a train providing force against the front locomotives, the cars are held closer together, reducing wear and tear on the couplings that connect the cars. The radio-controlled locomotive is also provided with a safety feature in case of a derailment: a compressed air line runs from the lead locomotives all the way back to the engine in the rear of the train. If any car derails, that air line is cut, and the engine pushing the train is supposed to shut down, so as not to worsen the impact of the derailment.
The first two locomotives made it across the Shermer Rd. bridge without incident, according to engineers hired by the Union Pacific, thus proving that at that moment that the Shermer Rd. bridge’s infrastructure – which had been repaired only one year ago – was still in proper alignment.
Then came the coal cars – 138 of them. Each car was fully loaded with coal. The train was moving at about 35 miles per hour, making for a tremendous combination of speed, weight and momentum pressing down on the already hot welded rail passing over the 103-year old Shermer Rd. bridge.
As the coal cars passed over the bridge, according to the Union Pacific engineer at the Community Meeting, the added heat caused by the steel wheels passing over the already overheated and deformed rails “caused [the rails] to go over the edge” of how deformed they could become before a derailment occurred.
As the Lindners’ car began its final, deadly approach to the bridge, they could see the train passing across the bridge they were about to go under. It’s always kind of thrilling to see such a huge train moving across a bridge when you drive or walk under it: the roar of the locomotives; the blaring of the air horns; the screech of the steel wheels as they grind against the rails.
Perhaps the Union Pacific inspector who originally called in the alarm that there was something wrong with the track over the Shermer Rd. bridge was still observing the scene as the coal train passed by. What emotions were going through that unknown person’s mind as they saw the train approach? What did they say to themselves as it began it’s passage over the bridge? And what did they think as they saw their worst fears realized – as first one car, then another! then another! derailed and began to “accordion” into the northeast abutment of the bridge – each car weighing 260,000 lbs. and moving at 35 MPH! The noise must have been horrible! The shaking of the ground, the scream or ripping steel, samshing, grinding and then the bridge collapsing on to Shermer Rd., on to the Lindners as they saw, horrified, their lives coto an end!
28 fully loaded coal cars smashed into each other, over the next 30 seconds as the rear locomotive – still in motion from inertia in spite of the cutting of the derailment’s compressed air line being already cut – kept on pushing, pushing coal car after coal car onto the bridge until, overloaded beyond its ability to maintain its structural viability, the entire bridge collapsed onto the Lindners car – hopefully, mercifully killing both of them instantly.
This, at least, is the official version of the derailment, according to the Union Pacific Railroad, as they attempted to describe it to the assembled citizens of Northbrook and Glenview at the Community Meeting on July 16, 2012.
But is this what actually happened?
To be continued