by Bob Tuzik, Executive Program Director – Wheel Rail Seminars
If there are lessons to be learned from a derailment — and, of course, there are — then Gary Wolf’s The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation is a master class on finding, analyzing, and understanding the marks on the wheels and rails and broken bits of vehicle and track components that tell the story of what happens when it all goes south. Looked at in the right light, a derailment is a learning experience — a window into understanding vehicle/track interaction — albeit an expensive and painful one.
As Gary Wolf points out in his introduction to The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation: “A derailment is one of the most significant events you will deal with as a railroad supervisor.” A proper response to a derailment is of critical importance, he says. And while finding the “what” — the root cause — of a derailment is the first order of business, finding the “why” of it is the next, possibly higher, order of business.
“When massive damage, destroyed track, environmental damage, and possibly human lives are at stake, the consequences of a recurrence are staggering,” Wolf says. “Using the information, the concepts, principles, and guidance contained in this manual, you should be able to find a true and accurate root cause of any derailment that you are faced with. And, more importantly, put in place the proper corrective actions to eliminate any chance of recurrence.”
“You don’t need a PhD in engineering to make a good derailment investigation, Wolf says. “What it takes is hard work, getting dirty, perseverance, determination, and teamwork.”
While he holds a master’s degree, Gary Wolf is not an academic. And while he is no stranger to the laboratory, he is not a researcher. He is a practitioner who gained his expertise the hard way, picking through the wreckage on hands and knees for evidence of the causes of the more than 4,000 derailments he has investigated over the course of his 50-plus-years in the railway industry, which includes a 17-year span in the Southern/Norfolk Southern Mechanical Engineering Department and 33 years as a consultant. He is well versed in train operations, testing/instrumentation, vehicle dynamics, vehicle/track interaction, and track assessment and maintenance, as well.
“It’s remarkable for one guy to have such a comprehensive knowledge of the Track, Transportation and Mechanical sides of the industry,” said Brad Kerchof, the former Director of Research & Tests at Norfolk Southern and current Senior Consultant to Advanced Rail Management. That, coupled with his in-the-weeds, knee-level perspective on what happens when one or more of those aspects — vehicle, track, train operation — goes wrong, provides a unique and valuable perspective.
As the industry’s preeminent derailment investigator, Wolf is also an educator, having trained more than 6,000 railroaders in the techniques of derailment investigation. Anyone who has attended Wheel Rail Seminars’ annual Wheel/Rail Interaction conference, at which Wolf is a regular speaker, already knows the value of the clear, practical, down-to-earth information, and his dynamic presentation style. All of that is abundantly evident in his book.
Despite the complexity of the subject matter, Gary’s writing style is straight forward, said Michael Franke, retired Vice President – Chief Engineer of BNSF and former AREMA President. “His book is not as theoretical or hypothetical as most textbooks.”
Or as Michael Iden, retired General Director of Locomotive Engineering at Union Pacific, and current Locomotive and Railroad Consultant with Tier 5 Locomotive LLC, puts it: “It’s not about calculating the number of cubic moonbeams per metric nightmare. It’s about the physical evidence, nominal dimensions – the facts.” Wolf’s book is a testament to that, he said. “Anybody who has anything to do with making decisions relating to derailments should take the time to read it.”
In 20 sections over 436 pages including more than 1,000 illustrations, Wolf conducts a forensic investigation into derailment causes, clearly and methodically identifying the types of evidence that can be found on various components at the site.
“This book represents a remarkable collection of knowledge with complicated topics addressed with great clarity in a very accessible, conversational style,” said Peter Klauser, president of Vehicle Dynamics. “The collection of slides and photos provide priceless examples of the issues.”
While The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation is a proper textbook, it was not designed for the bookshelf. With laminated plastic covers and coated paper stock, the 4 ½ x 7-inch, spiral-bound book was designed to be used in the field.
“I keep a copy in my office and one in the side pocket of my truck,” said Eric Levin, Conrail’s Vice President – Engineering and Mechanical. “My chief engineer does, too. You never know when you’re going to need it.”
The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation covers the gamut of derailment-related information, starting with a primer on the L/V (lateral-to-vertical) ratio and why wheels derail. It moves from there through every aspect of track, vehicles and locomotives and their components, operations, and human factors that are related to derailments and the investigation of them. The wealth of photographs and drawings, each worth a thousand words, that appear on nearly every page provide an insider’s look into the mechanical underside — the good, the bad, and the ugly — of railroading.
As David Lester, Managing Editor of Railway Track and Structures, said in his review of Wolf’s book: (https://www.rtands.com/news/book-review/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=23538) “Even railroaders who have ‘seen a lot’ over decades of experience will find something that they haven’t previously encountered,” Conrail’s Eric Levinsaid. “[Wolf’s book] provides a starting point, something to refer to. It can enlighten and hasten the process of finding the cause of derailment.”
“The book has so many images, it encourages you to read page after page,” ARM’s Brad Kerchof said. “It’s not intimidating. You can easily read it section by section.”
Chapter 10 on inspecting the track structure, for example, is alone worth the $75 price of admission for anyone charged with inspecting track, providing a plethora of photos and drawings that illustrate both static and the less obvious dynamic conditions that can determine whether a train stays on the track.
Much like the chapter on the track structure, Chapter 11 on mechanical inspection of the first derailed vehicle provides a comprehensive breakdown of wheels, axles, trucks, bolsters, springs, bearings, side frames, bearings, knuckles, and the wear members associated with them. It also provides a rogue’s gallery of conditions to be avoided.
“If you’ve read the book carefully, you’ll have completed a master class in track and vehicle inspection,” Peter Klauser said.
Chapters on the inspection of locomotives and locomotive trucks are equally comprehensive and informative, providing a breakdown of the component parts, complete with issues relating to allowable component wear and clearances.
“My focus is on locomotives,” Tier 5 Locomotive’s Mike Iden said, “and Gary has touched on a lot of things relating to locomotives, particularly trucks, clearances, wear points, dampers, wheel profiles, etc. It’s about time a book like this came out.”
Chapter 16: Derailment Modes, Symptoms and Causes is a window into vehicle-, track- and vehicle/track interaction-related issues that can and do lead to derailments. A thorough read of this chapter provides not only illustrations of conditions that lead to derailments, but also a cautionary tale of the conditions, such as incorrect superelevation and the resulting adverse lateral and vertical (and creep) forces, that lead to trouble if left unchecked. This chapter is the metaphorical heart of the book, tying vehicle and track component conditions to vehicle/track interaction. The chapter represents a clinic on vehicle/track interaction, again illustrating good and poor vehicle and track conditions, which, Wolf incidentally points out, may be within regulatory compliance.
“Gary does something that I have not seen anyone else do: He consistently drives home the point that you cannot determine the cause of a derailment without identifying the point of derailment, the first car to derail, and the derailment mechanism,” ARM’s Brad Kerchof said. “In my experience, you can’t determine a derailment cause without those pieces of information.”
Industry experts concur that Wolf’s book leaves no stone uncovered. That includes the challenging aspects of investigating human-factor-caused derailments, to which one third of all derailments are attributed. As Wolf points out, “you will not ‘find’ the root cause when dealing with human failure; the root cause must be developed and constructed.”
“It takes a human being to understand why people do what they do,” Vehicle Dynamics’ Peter Klauser said. “An investigator’s job is to approach the issue through the facts, with none of the background noise that the person involved in the incident was subject to, then to understand why that person did what they did and to determine what we can do differently to minimize the distractions, be they weather, or whatever, that occur whenever they make a decision. It’s fascinating,” he said.
Mike Franke, who amongst his other credentials has also been the chair of the AREMA selection committee for the annual William Hay Award for excellence in engineering, and a longtime booster of railway engineering education, said: “This book is going to be a great resource for people entering the industry. So many experienced people have left the industry in recent years. This book will help fill the gap in the knowledge base — and not only for the information on derailment investigations. Gary’s book is much better than any I’ve seen for railway nomenclature and for the photos of actual vehicle and track conditions. We should encourage the industry to get copies into the hands of railway engineering students and new employees.”
Eric Levin, Conrail’s Vice President Engineering and Mechanical, has done just that.
“We’ve got some great young people in the Conrail organization,” Levin said. “We also have a railroad that runs everything from 10-mph branch line that runs down to the Jersey Shore to a 60-mph passenger mainline that supports 60 NJT passenger trains a day, as well as 40 mainline freight trains for CSX and Norfolk Southern. It’s that and everything in between. As a result,” he said, “we have a continuing need to further educate our staff.”
“We have an internal book about finding the causes of derailments that’s a great reference,” Levin said, “but Gary’s book takes the information to a whole new level. It memorializes the information in a format that’s easy to read and easy to understand. It’s a one-stop shop to improve people’s skill levels.”
When it comes to investigating and understanding the causes of derailments, Levin said, “Gary Wolf is the ultimate authority. His name commands respect anywhere you go. So, when I heard about the book, I ordered 30 copies and distributed them to the Mechanical, Engineering, the field staff, and even the office staff. Our Transportation people bought copies for their trainmasters.”
“Knowledge is a powerful thing,” Levin said. “The more access we can give our people to high-quality education, the better off we all are. And this book does that in a very accessible way. I can’t say enough about it.”
As Peter Klauser, put it: The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation isthe work of a lifetime; the distillation of a productive 50-year career.”
The Complete Field Guide to Modern Derailment Investigation is available through Wolf Railway Consulting at www.wolfrailway.com