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MythBusters: “Tanker Crush”


Under a scorching 95 degree late summer sun in the US Pacific Northwest, AllTranstek teamed up with the MythBusters crew to prove or bust the myth that a tank car could potentially succumb to the force of an internal vacuum, causing the car to implode. A tremendously long journey finally culminated to this point, and a process that Jamie Hyneman of MythBusters describes as “spanning 3 months” realistically began with a presumed to be prank phone call in late 2014 to Gino Smith, AllTranstek’s Quality Assurance and HazMat specialist.


After receiving a voicemail from a party claiming to be MythBusters, Gino expressed his initial doubts about their authenticity. Once the call was returned, those doubts were removed as Gino confirmed it actually was MythBusters, and they actually were interested in performing this extravagant experiment.


AllTranstek was proud to provide expert representatives in safety and regulatory matters from the rail industry to govern the process and facilitate the proper performance and reception of the activity.

In the “Tanker Crush” episode, MythBusters stated that there were three main logistical hurdles to overcome. First, finding tank cars was a huge problem for their team, with no industry background or proper contacts to leverage. They also needed to secure a facility where the experiment could be conducted. It was a necessity that the sight be remote enough to ensure that filming would not be interrupted. The space also needed to accommodate the necessary equipment, while providing sufficient room to maintain a safe distance during performance of the experiment. Lastly, it was vital for the MythBusters team to bring in expertise to consult them on the technical aspects of the tank car, use of the equipment, and safety measures. AllTranstek was able to provide key support in each of these aspects for MythBusters.


The procurement of the two cars began the first stage of the process. The most desirable cars for the experiment would be aged pieces of equipment destined for retirement, yet undamaged and featuring solid structural integrity. The appropriate cars had been difficult to obtain for the MythBusters team, and proved similarly difficult for AllTranstek. After inspecting almost a dozen cars as potential candidates, AllTranstek and MythBusters settled on two older DOT-111 tank cars. By this time, MythBusters was closing in on the July 2015 production dates originally decided on, and a proper facility was still yet to be picked.


Gino was able to pull through again by locating a facility. AllTranstek was lucky to receive the support of the Pacific Ethanol team, who had an ideal remote location for filming in the Pacific Northwest town of Boardman, Oregon, along with high quality individuals who were willing to pull out all the stops to make this project happen. The site had all the qualities the MythBusters were looking for, and Pacific Ethanol even accommodated a generous timeline to allow the tank cars to be scrapped and removed from their track afterward. Having established the location of the experiment with little time to spare, AllTranstek expedited the process of securing the tank cars’ necessary documentation and provided logistical support to have the cars shipped out west.


Apart from securing the equipment and facility, AllTranstek was providing technical support at every step. Selection of proper service equipment was contingent upon the accuracy of force calculations which were required to cause a tank car to collapse inwardly. While MythBusters had been gathering data through their own experimentation, the Engineering team at AllTranstek was able to leverage expertise in the tank car field and ASME to calculate more definitive fail points in the implosion force calculations. These numbers proved vital in securing equipment that boasted the power essential to the success of the experiment.


MythBusters had several options in choosing steam generators and vacuum trucks, and were able to make informed decisions using AllTranstek’s recommended specs. Several scrap dealers were also contacted to remove the car from site, but only one was found in the area that would actually “remove” the car from site. There was a disconnect with the scrap dealers on this important point, as several dealers maintained a belief, despite MythBusters’ and AllTranstek’s insistence otherwise, that the car was actually going to roll out of the facility to a scrap yard. Finally, a dealer with full removal capability was arranged, and all the pieces were in place.


The day finally came when MythBusters and AllTranstek would meet face to face, under that scorching summer sun, to put the tank car under the ultimate vacuum test. Employees of AllTranstek’s Sister company, Rescar, accompanied on the journey, bringing their tank car repair experience, safety guidelines, and mobile equipment to assist the process. AllTranstek was charged with setting up and controlling the experiment from a safety standpoint, while Rescar provided the necessary “safe to enter” permits, valve preparation, interior ladders, and required safety training and gear for the MythBusters crew. Rescar’s regional manager, Bill Bowling, headed up Rescar’s effort, and provided invaluable insight throughout the process, including the training of MythBusters’ Adam Savage on proper confined space entry procedures and spotting his entry into the tank car’s interior.


The experiment was conducted over the span of three days, with tests being performed on both tank cars. Initially, MythBusters decided to use the “better looking” of the two cars for added production value. A sharp and freshly painted DOT-111 rolled out onto the test site to face the steam cleaning barrage. After being pumped full of superheated steam, the tank car was sealed up and left to cool, with the help of the local Boardman fire department spraying the car down with cold water. Ultimately, tank car number one was left standing, fully intact, long after the pressure indicators read that the car should have most assuredly collapsed.


Phase two saw the second car rolled out for its time in the spotlight. Covered with dirt and rust, this less appealing car would surely succumb to the more direct force of having the air removed. The car was hooked up, and air was removed to create a vacuum at a much faster rate than the previous car experienced in the steam cleaning phase. Despite the tremendous force placed on car number two, it proved to be just as robust as its more visually appealing counterpart, and at the end of the day, was left standing all the same.


Phase three was pulled off thanks to the ever ready staff at Pacific Ethanol, when they pulled a few strings to commission a military grade crane, and have it delivered to the test site. After running the gauntlet in this logistical nightmare, the MythBusters were never going to leave Boardman, Oregon without witnessing the fruits of their labor. In true MythBusters fashion, it was decided that a 3,200 pound concrete block would be dropped from over 30 feet onto the car to create a flaw in the car’s structure, which resulted in a six inch dent on top of the tank car. Only then, after the structural integrity of the car had been compromised, did the experiment succeed. The vacuum trucks hooked up and quickly dispatched with the air, causing the tank car to instantaneously collapse with an earth shaking boom.


Despite well exceeding the negative pressure requirements predicated by initial calculations, the steam cleaning and vacuum equipment did not prove to be strong enough to collapse the car until there was a flaw in the structure.


AllTranstek remained on site for the full scale and scope of the experiment, providing the MythBusters with technical background and talking points for their narration and dialogue. Only after AllTranstek had conducted a post experiment inspection, were any team members permitted to approach the car to fully assess the damages.

The experiment finally yielded a verdict of “Myth Busted” from Jamie and Adam, as they determined the tank car was too structurally sound to feasibly implode by way of steam cleaning and sealing, given the car lacked sufficient flaws. Their frustration was apparent at times during the episode, as they fully anticipated the car would collapse under such pressure. The resistance of the tank car and its durability elicited some notable responses from the MythBusters crew within the “Tanker Crush” episode, with Adam declaring early on, “God they make these things tough, don’t they?” Jamie responded similarly on the final day of the experiment, “It turns out these tank cars are actually pretty tough little bastards!”

All in all, AllTranstek’s takeaway from MythBusters’ experimentation was overwhelmingly positive. The results are a great testament to both the durability of the North American general purpose tank car, and the measures taken by regulators to ensure commodities traveling by rail are moving in safe vessels. AllTranstek is happy to have played a part in this unique event, and hopes that this experiment has helped shed some positive light on the tank car, while showing that tank car owners, operators, builders, and regulators consider safety a number one priority in shipping practices. Like the two scrap tank cars used in this experiment, hopefully the rest of the North American tank car fleet can have its time to shine as well.

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