This SD-40 locomotive has hauled freight across North America’s heartland for over 40 years. Now it’s reached the end of the line. One hundred tonnes of steel, six sets of wheels and a fourteen-and-a-half-tonne engine must be salvaged, melted or refurbished, so it can be reborn and returned to the rail industry.
Railroads are the backbone of American industry. Over 270,000km of track crisscross the country from coast to coast moving nearly two billion tonnes of freight every year. At the center of it all sits Kansas City, the second largest rail junction in the US. Two hundred thousand trains pass through this location every year. But today, two locomotives owned by Kansas City Southern — or KCS — will stop running. Numbers 672 and 605 have been on the rails for over 40 years. But now their engine technology is inefficient and fuel prices are at an all-time high so these locomotives are headed for the scrap yard to be broken down.
Scrap and recycling company Erman usually scraps much lighter train equipment so this locomotive pair is almost too much for the rails to handle. They’ll need to systematically dismantle the locomotives, cutting through solid steel without damaging the internal components or their auxiliary parts. A locomotive is designed to be almost indestructible — in this case, a 160-tonne construction of cast and welded steel. Each piece must be taken out by hand with blowtorches. The breakdown will happen from the top down in three steps. Step one, the strip down: cut and skin the steel outer shell of the locomotive to expose its power core. Step two, the gut out: remove the locomotive’s internal organs — the prime mover and generator. And step three, the final breakdown: cut away the cab, and torch up the over seven-centimeter-thick solid steel locomotive bed to salvage the wheels and supports. It’s a job that takes experience, skill and a healthy respect for locomotives.
Number 672 will be the first to go. The team needs to cut through layers of solid steel and blowtorches are the only way to do it. The flame is 50 percent acetylene gas and 50 percent oxygen — the only mixture that burns hot enough to cut steel, 3,480ºC to be exact. Direct contact with this heat could be deadly, so each worker must wear a face shield and protective clothing. But the flames aren’t the only hazard. A machine this old is a potential powder keg. Oil and fuel residues are all over this locomotive. One wrong move with a blowtorch could ignite an explosion.