Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit

Judging by the number of compilations that have been put online, one of the not-so-secret vices of the YouTube generation must be the watching of crash videos. Whether it is British drivers chancing their luck on level crossings, Russians losing it at speed on packed snow, or Americans driving tall trucks under low bridges, these films exert a compelling fascination upon the viewing public intent on deriving entertainment from the misfortunes of others. The footage is often peripheral or grainy, having inevitably been captured by a dashcam or a security camera rather than centre-stage on a broadcast quality system with professional operation. You can’t predict when such things will happen.

There was one moment, back in 1984, when predicting a major crash was exactly what you could do. It was a national event, all over the TV screens, and one which was watched by millions. The operators of British nuclear power stations wished to stage a public demonstration of how robust their transport flasks for spent nuclear fuel rods were, so after all the lab tests they could throw at one they placed it on a railway test track and crashed a 100mph express train into it.

Water escaping during drop test.

This was as much a PR stunt as it was a scientific endeavour, and they lost no time in promoting it across all media. The film below the break was part of this effort, and takes us through the manufacture of the flask forged in one piece from huge billets of steel, before showing us the tests to which it was subjected. The toughest of these, a drop-test onto a corner of a fully laden flask, resulted in a small escape of the water contained within it. It was thus decided to conduct the ultimate test to ensure full public confidence in nuclear transport.

The Old Dalby test track is a section of a closed-to-passengers line in the English Midlands that was retained by British Railways as a proving ground for new locomotives. In the ultimate test of rail transport for nuclear waste, a flask was placed on its side across a piece of the track, and a train formed of a withdrawn 1960s locomotive and a short rake of 1950s carriages was accelerated without a driver over several miles to 100mph.

An instant before impact, we see the underside of the derailed car. The flask is between it and the locomotive.

[Nigel Harris] for Rail magazine wrote an almost funerial description of the destruction of locomotive 46009 25 years later in 2009, and as he reported the flask survived with only superficial damage and a tiny loss in pressure. The event was hailed as a success by the nuclear industry, before fading from the public consciousness as nuclear power station operators prefer to remain out of the news.

It is questionable how much the Old Dalby crash was for the cameras and the public, and how much it was for the scientists and engineers. But such destructive tests do serve as a means to gain vital test data that could not be harvested any other way, and have been performed more than once in the aviation industry. Later in the same year a Boeing 720 was crashed for science in the USA, while more recently in 2012 a Boeing 727 was crashed in Mexico.

Crashing an express train into a nuclear flask is something not likely to be seen again, it was a one-off event. But one thing’s for sure, our inability to turn away from watching a train wreck is nothing new. YouTube and ubiquitous cameras certainly make crashes available with a few keystrokes. But from the 1984 cask crash test, to the the spectacle of Crush, Texas back in 1896, the sheer power shown in these crashes seems to have a siren song effect on us.

Header image: Brian Robert Marshall [CC BY-SA 2.0].

12 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit

  1. “Crashing an express train into a nuclear flask is something not likely to be seen again, it was a one-off event. But one thing’s for sure, our inability to turn away from watching a train wreck is nothing new. ”

    Of course. How many time have we said, “that’s a train wreck” while going through our day to day?

  2. That crash was done on a special isolated track. Even more spectacular is the crash carried out for the 1929 silent film “The Wrecker”. It’s a rather dull story of cut-throat competition between the coach and train industries, and would be completely unmemorable were it not for the crash. Just south of the filming location of the legendary Buggleskelly in Oh Mr Porter, a little south of Basingstoke, was a branch line that only ran services six days a week. So one sunday they managed to set up all the behid the scenes stuff, cameras etc, film a pretty spectacular train crash, then set everything right in order for the commuter services to run the next morning.

  3. I’ve no idea if it’s still there, but 25 years ago, this “flask” was on display near the entrance to Heysham nuclear power station. Quite impressively it had clearly suffered remarkably little damage!

  4. It was propaganda – I recall that UK high street white/brown electrical goods shops were selling 3 hour blank VHS tapes with an 18 minute version of the film above and a picture of the collision on the front of a book style case cheaply. Unfortunately my own tape was recorded over, the cover is still around somewhere.

    Incidentally the immediate aftermath ‘experts’ appeared on TV/newspapers saying that the gold standard safety test would be a RPG/ATGM fired at point blank range (it was the age of international terrorism) but the CEGB never carried out one of those.

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