From the December 2004 issue of Claims Magazine • Subscribe!

Worn Rail Car Wheels Cause Losses

It is not unusual for insureds to own private railroad sidings or turnouts as part of their industrial operations. Typically, freight cars are shuttled by railroad companies onto insureds' sidings for loading and hauling of products. Occasionally, substantial property losses occur from derailments on insureds' tracks during routine movement of rail cars. Such a loss site, at which a derailment cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the siding, roadbed, switch gear, and switch, is shown in Figure 1.

The railroad company also made a claim for repair of the locomotive and rolling stock. This implied that the insured's track had caused the derailment, a common assertion by the railroads. However, inspection of the rail car wheels, which are property of the railroad, told a different story.

In reality, one of the wheel flanges on the lead car started the derailment. As seen in Figure 2, the flange was badly worn and out of specification. A wheel flange that is more rounded on the inner surface and within specification is shown in Figure 3. The problem with worn flanges is that the wheel will tend to climb over a switch point rather than be directed onto the insured's siding. In this case, the lead car derailed by climbing over the switch point. Sharp, worn flanges have a tendency to cut into the rail and lift off the rail, causing derailment.

Figure 4 compares an acceptable railroad car wheel flange (left) and a worn flange (right). Wheel gauges are used by railroad personnel to check the acceptability of railroad car wheels. The gauge is placed over the flange and indicates minimum dimensions for flange width. A typical wheel wear gauge is shown in Figure 5.

As illustrated in this case, not all derailments are caused by deficiencies in private owners' sidings and may, instead, be caused by defective railroad rolling stock. Removal of worn-out equipment is the responsibility of the railroad during regular maintenance inspections, using various tools including the wear gauge.

The claim analyst often is at the mercy of insureds as to notification of losses. Some insureds notify claim departments several days after the dates of loss. This allows rail cars that were involved in accidents to be reabsorbed into the railroad system, making them difficult to track and photograph. Luckily, in this case, the insured promptly notified claim personnel, and the inspection and photographs were obtained, which had a significant bearing on establishing the cause of the loss.

Charles C. Roberts Jr., Ph.D., PE, is a consulting engineer based in Big Rock, Ill. He is primary author of the reference work "Technical Notebook: Forensic Aspects of Claims," released by ClaimsBooks.

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