Millipedes – Yes, Millipedes – May Be Responsible for Australian Train Crash

Imagine hundreds of squishy millipedes swarming a train track, then let your imagination do the rest

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Dion Thompson Photography / Getty Images

Millipedes are tiny invertebrates with segmented bodies and a whole bunch of legs — that’s the reason we call them millipedes (the Latin root mille means “thousand”). No one’s ever seen a full thousand-footed arthropod scooting along a blank wall, though the leggiest millipede can top out at 750 — close enough to heart-stopping if you suffer from entomophobia.

(WATCH: Students Eat 15,000-Pound, World Record Fruit Salad)

Still, even something smaller like the innocuous-looking Black Portuguese millipede can have a titanic impact in sufficient numbers — say, causing one passenger train to crash into another.

That’s what happened in Western Australia on Tuesday, though the official cause of the crash has yet to be determined. But after the rear-end crash occurred, Reuters says “hundreds of the tiny creatures were found squashed in a slippery mess on the track.”

“Millipedes are one of the factors we are going to take into account,” David Hynes, a spokesman with the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia, told Reuters. It’s not clear how fast the moving train was traveling when it crashed into the stationary one, but six passengers were treated for neck stiffness.

The millipede theory involves other trains — how many, who knows — passing over millipede-infested section of the track and squashing them into a slimy-slick paste. Imagine…well, okay, don’t, but yes, traction definitely sounds like a problem if the pulverized millipede theory proves accurate.

Ommatoiulus moreletii — the Latin name for the Black Portuguese millipede — already has a reputation as an invasive pest. It was accidentally introduced to Australia in the 1950s, and according to Minibeast Wildlife, a site devoted to cataloguing Australian critters, the Portuguese millipede has no natural predators, thus it tends to breed in “plague numbers.” In 2002, the site writes, so many of the Portuguese millipedes clogged the rails between Melbourne and Ballart — about 70 miles apart — that 50 trains had to be suspended.

According to the site, “Few people would believe that such small animals could stop a train, but the mush and oils from millions of dead millipedes on the tracks caused the trains to loose [sic] traction, and the mess had to be cleaned off before services could resume!”

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29 comments
justforlaughs
justforlaughs

Train "A" leaves town at 4pm,  Train "B" arrives at it's destination ahead of train "A",  If train "A" sold 75% of it's seats in coach and train "B" has no current schedule;  How many legs on an arthropod will it take to injure 6 people?

wordsmeet
wordsmeet

Wow, amazing news. Can we export our American goats to eat the millipedes?

daljit.bimrah
daljit.bimrah

This year, around my back yard in Massachusetts  we had an infestation, we  literally had of thousands millipedes, any reason why? Could this be global thing? Any ideas how you can get rid of them?

bertsim01
bertsim01

Seeing as how each train car has brakes and is hooked up to the engines whether they are pushing or pulling and providing the source for the air brakes I seriously doubt that bugs on the tracks will stop a train car that weighs several tons (empty) from stopping.  The crushing force of several tons will no doubt displace any remains of any insect on the train rail.  It's good to know that the writers at reuters and at time haven't learned anything about mechanics or physics.

justheretosay
justheretosay

millions of dead millipedes on the tracks caused the trains to LOOSE traction

Good to know we can count on Time for professional level journalism and such basic things as "spell check". Good to know how highly intelligent their journalists are that they do NOT know the difference between "Loose" and "Lose".....as in this instance. Congrats!

FreeRadicals
FreeRadicals

" . . . caused the trains to *loose traction."       Gotta love out-sourcing @TIME.

perisoft
perisoft

As if the fire tornadoes weren't enough, now the Aussies are dealing with train-sabotaging, terrorist millipedes. It's no wonder they're a hardy bunch.

boguem
boguem

This is apparently a known issue, at least as far back as 2002.  So why haven't they established slower speeds on lines where these bugs cause problems?  The millipedes may have been the physical cause of the train's inability to stop, but management apparently failed to adjust for them.

PhxAz
PhxAz

It's not the millipedes fault, let's wait for the full investigation's results... I'm very sure the human factor was involved.

ivanlibya
ivanlibya

Ah yes, blame the millipede for crashing into a STATIONARY object, not the train conductor for not stopping WAY in advance, like a train should, smh.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

"No one’s ever seen a full thousand-footed arthropod... " Oh, yes... saw one in Dune.

Worldsprayer
Worldsprayer

@bertsim01 You are partially correct and partially wrong.  There are two kinds of friction: static and dynamic.  Static friction is the friction experienced between 2 non-moving objects:ie a block sitting on a floor and believe it or not, a tire rolling.  A tire experiences static friction because its not actually moving across the ground, merely changing its angle and bring other portions down.  Now if you held a tire in place, and drug it around without letting it spin, then the tire would experience dynamic friction.  Now here's the kicker: dynamic friction is LESS than static.  What this means is that when something starts sliding, it takes LESS for to keep it sliding than it took to start it.  Thats the idea behind anti-lock breaks.  by the breaks pumping rapidly instead of just coming on and staying on, its preventing tires from entering and staying in dynamic friction mode.  So on the train:  The train wheels hits the patch of mushed up bugs and the oils they excrete (bugs are very oily btw, its how many maintain moisture and dont dry up from the surrounding earth) and for an instant, that wheel that had been rolling along with static friction now starts experiencing dynamic...which requires less force to keep it there.  The only way the wheel will come OUT of that form of friction is to slow down or experience another force.  Its not the oil, it might be gone, its the fact that the wheel isnt rolling, its SLIDING.  Once all the wheels enter that...then its hitting the breaks and hoping nothing is in the way.


TimoteoHiroshima
TimoteoHiroshima

@bertsim01 What if the train is only one car long, as in this case?  Have you never seen an auto lose traction, even with rubber tires and asphalt? Or a semi?

WDS906
WDS906

@bertsim01 It's good to know that readers of this article haven't learned anything about traction and lubricants.

dh730
dh730

@justheretosay Did you miss the [sic}?  In case you forgot, that is the editor noting that she saw the error from another source.

mattpeckham
mattpeckham

@justheretosay That's not the author speaking, that's the quoted site. I've added a note to clarify their typo.

Tricha
Tricha

Tricha

Last year parts of Maryland was infected with them.  About 2 inches long.  Think of the movie "Squirm" were the ground seems to be moving and that's what we had in Maryland.  They were everywhere in the house, kitchen, bath tub, laundry room, and bedrooms.  Anywhere that is cool and damp. Some are even poisonous if you touch them.

cogadh
cogadh

@ivanlibya Imagine you are driving your car up to a red light. You hit the brakes to slow down like you normally would as a safe driver, but you didn't notice the nearly invisible layer of "black ice" all over the road. Despite your best efforts, you slide right into the back of the stopped car in front of you. Now scale that up to a multi-ton train and replace the icy road with a slippery, bug guts covered track. You could argue that the driver should have noticed the slippery conditions, but then again so should you in your car. No one thinks twice about blaming the ice instead of the driver when a car accident like that happens, so how is it really any different for this train conductor?

troywhoffman
troywhoffman

@ivanlibya Although there ma be some human factor involved, if the track were coated with millipede guts, that would definitely increase the stopping distance of the train.

bertsim01
bertsim01

@WDS906

Traction is provided by the weight of vehicle and the contact between the wheel and surface it rides on (tracks).   Why do you think that train wheels don't have any rubber component to them?  They don't need to because the weight of the train and steel wheels provides enough traction, irrespective of whatever may be on the tracks.  This applies to water, sand and other detritus that may be on the tracks.  There doesn't seem to be any mention of the viscosity of the smashed millipedes so I doubt that the shear strength of the smashed bugs is enough to cause the guts to withstand the downforce of the wheels and weight of the train cars to cause the train to loose traction and crash.

GPSUYYA

dbcouver
dbcouver

@bertsim01 @WDS906 As a freight conductor I'd have to side with the guy who says that wheels can slip.  Because, well, they can.  They do.  It happens anytime there's something on the track that lubes it up, whether it be rain or greasy little bugs, it happens.  I don't need physics to explain it, I experience it every day.  So seriously doubt it if you want.