An ounce of prevention is worth all the cure

An ounce of prevention is worth all the cure

As president and founder of AmeriTrac RailRoad Services, I have come to the conclusion that there are numerous actions companies can take that will almost without fail guarantee them success through the course of time. The actions I am speaking of would probably be better conveyed to many as “secrets of success.”

As a railroad consultant and maintenance / construction / switching provider who services a multitude of refineries, petrochemical plants, paper mills, concrete plants and other large industries, there is an obvious pattern of excellent safety performance that has clearly set some of these entities apart from all the rest.

These entities all seem to have the same understanding of an old but very wise saying that states, “An ounce of prevention is worth all the cure.”

An Avoidable Derailment Incident

Once AmeriTrac RailRoad Services was called upon to perform a track inspection for a company that owned a rail yard facility of hazardous chemical railcars and tank cars. The rail yard was inspected, and the track inspection revealed defects in certain areas of track that could easily cause a derailment if not corrected. We consulted with the company, giving them the written inspection report along with the cost estimate for repairs. The company was advised that the defects could be corrected for a minimal cost, but for whatever reason the company chose not to correct the defects at that time.

A few months later AmeriTrac received a phone call requesting that our emergency response team come and assist in a derailment involving railcars carrying chemical products. The derailment occurred at the exact location of the company that previously retained us for the track inspection and cost estimate.


As a result, some of the derailed cars spilled large amounts of chemical products that were enough to cause a major thoroughfare of a large city to be closed for more than 24 hours, drawing local news media, city emergency response personnel and HAZ-MAT clean up crews to the scene.

The soaring costs for correcting the derailment came pouring in; however this was not the end. In the months to follow the company spent week upon week filling out paperwork and other information necessary to be reported to the local city, state and other governmental agencies that became involved once the chemical spill occurred.

Although there were no injuries reported, the tragedy of this story is that it could have simply been prevented by correcting the minor track deficiencies previously reported. In the case an ounce of prevention would have been well worth all the cure.

A Proactive Approach to Railroad Maintenance

There are various reasons that cause companies to delay in initiating rail maintenance. First and foremost, many do not understand the importance of maintaining rail yards. Company maintenance supervisors seem to focus on the areas of plants and refineries that are profit centers and those areas they feel are not cost centers such as rail yards tend to be put “out of sight out of mind.” But what might not be realized is that tracks without maintenance are essentially like time bombs that will explode at some given point in time resulting in possible enormous property damage, accidents, injuries, and fatalities as well as environmental catastrophes due to hazardous chemical spills and releases.

When it comes to derailments caused by lack of maintenance, it is not a matter of will it happen, but when is it going to happen. When a lay person observes a railroad track, he may see heavy steel rails nailed together with large, heavy steel spikes and heavy spike plates to large creosote rail ties embedded into a continued pile of large rock ballast and comprehend that this construction is a rigid, sturdy, fixed, massive creation that lasts for eternity.

But this can’t be further from the truth. In reality, railroad construction is a structure that is continually moving by expansion and contraction and as a result, slowly digressing. Extreme changes of weather such as heat, cold and rain cause the steel rails to continually expand and contract as well as settle into the ballast, resulting in rails actually pulling the spikes out and making the entire structure loose to the point of rails turning out and widening.

railroad track

Loose, widened rails are an assurance of a derailment if not immediately corrected. This is a solid guaranteed process when taken into account the repetitive use of loaded railcars moving over the tracks on a continual basis. Railcars are not weighted in pounds - they are weighted in tons. Say, for example, a 114-car train of loaded coal is shoved into a rail yard for unloading. The entire weight of that train and locomotive is in excess of 14,579 tons. That is the weight traveling over the entry switch and track they are being stored on waiting for the unloading process. Keep in mind that this is only one train.

The question every maintenance supervisor should ask is how many trains are moving over their tracks in a week. Once companies understand this they see clearly the importance of an ongoing maintenance program. When a derailment happens not only are they immediately faced with all the various damage costs caused by the derailment but also realize their entire yard is in dire need of revamping, which is an enormous task when taken on all at one time.

"Companies that incorporate a rail maintenance program into their yearly budget experience complete cost control, complete scope of work to be performed and maintain a goal of zero incidents/accidents related to rail yards."

AmeriTrac’s Trac Budget Program covers these issues by:

  • Clearly identifying track defects
  • Giving budget costs to correct the track defects
  • Prioritizing defects by severity

The program makes it possible to maintain zero incidents/accidents for track defects because tracks never reach a defective derailment condition. AmeriTrac’s program is a valuable tool that works within a specified budget that greatly reduces or limits track outage time.

We can all understand the ongoing challenge of budgeting costs and managing safety measures. The right way, I have found, is to keep in mind that safety is a process and furthermore, an ounce of prevention is worth all the cure.

When it comes to railroad services, whether it be new railroad construction, railroad preventative maintenance, track inspection, switching, or railroad emergency response, AmeriTrac RailRoad Services is available 24/7 to serve you.

Article written by Phillip Jureczki, President & Founder of Ameritrac RailRoad Services

posted on May 15, 2009 View all news

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