Eddie Willers meets his worker friend at the Taggart cafeteria. He complains about the terrible effect of the directive on the railroad. Competent men are abandoning their posts, and only shiftless vagrants are taking jobs. A friend of Jim’s, Clifton Locey, has been hired to replace Dagny. His sole purpose each day is to avoid making decisions. The worker tells Eddie that he will not be coming back the next week because he is going away for a month’s vacation.
Rearden has moved out of his house and asked his lawyers to pull whatever strings are necessary to obtain a divorce from Lillian with no financial settlement for her. Walking to his apartment one night, he meets a man dressed in dark clothes who calls himself the friend of the friendless and hands Rearden a bar of solid gold. He tells Rearden that the gold is partial repayment for the income taxes he has been paying to a corrupt government, and it represents justice. He has been collecting the taxes of many industrialists for years in order to help them rebuild the world after the looters force it to collapse. When Rearden learns that the man is Ragnar Danneskjold, he is appalled, but moments later lies to police to protect him.
Taggart’s cross-country Comet is stranded in Colorado. Kip Chalmers, an important politician, is on board and demands that the train move ahead. The diesel engine is beyond repair, and the only available replacement is coal-burning and cannot enter the long, airless Taggart Tunnel. After a series of communications in which everyone from Jim Taggart to the train’s engineer refuses to take responsibility by sending vague directives, Chalmers is finally able to bully the employees into using the coal engine. A drunken engineer agrees to take the Comet through the tunnel after the assigned engineer resigns in protest. Everyone on board is killed from the toxic fumes. The last thing they see is the still-burning flame of Wyatt’s oil fields (“Wyatt’s Torch”). Later, an army munitions train slams into the stalled Comet and explodes, destroying the tunnel.
Francisco visits Dagny at her country lodge. He has come to confess his love and tell her everything. Now that she has quit, he thinks she is ready to join him. He tells her that he is one of the industrialists who have withdrawn from the world. But instead of disappearing like the others, he has stayed and systematically ruined d’Anconia Copper to keep the looters from taking it. She is furious that he could do such dishonor to something he loved so much, but he tells her that it was for the sake of his love that he did what he did. Losing her respect was the hardest part.
Dagny begins to see the logic of Francisco’s withdrawal and is ready to follow him when the radio broadcasts the news of the tunnel disaster. Instinctively, she rushes back to her job. She restores train service by rerouting onto other railroads’ tracks. Her actions are illegal under the Directive, but she knows the Unification Board will not stop her, as they now depend on her to fix the problem. She calls Rearden and admits she knows the looters are using her love for her railroad to hold her captive, just as they hold Rearden for his love of his work.
By now we know that the worker Eddie dines with in the Taggart cafeteria is a key figure in the story, but still we know nothing about him. In a novel filled with dialogue, he himself has no lines. Everything he says is inferred from Eddie’s responses. This curious fact highlights the mystery of who he is and why he is so interested in Eddie’s stories. Whoever he is, he knows a great deal about Dagny from his conversations with Eddie.
The mysterious Ragnar Danneskjold is finally revealed, and Francisco’s mysteries also become clear. On meeting Danneskjold, Rearden finds him to be a thoughtful and articulate man with a rational approach to his activities, far from the criminal thug Rearden imagined. Danneskjold represents justice in the story as he seeks to right the wrongs committed by the looters. In order to fight for justice, he must become a criminal, which is ironic, but when robbery is sanctioned by law, restitution becomes a crime. Although Rearden has always despised Danneskjold, after learning Danneskjold’s true story, Rearden is compelled to protect him from the police. The gold Danneskjold gives Rearden becomes a source of strength for him as the chaos intensifies.
As for Francisco, we learn he is one of the vanished businessmen, but he has chosen to stay in the looters’ world to further its collapse and urge others to withdraw. His conversations with Rearden and Dagny have been part of his recruiting effort. When he tells everything to Dagny, he nearly succeeds in getting her to leave, to withdraw her mind and ability in order to speed up the inevitable collapse of society. But in the same way that the furnace fire pulled Rearden back to his mills, the tunnel disaster pulls Dagny back to her railroad, just when she was ready to leave it. Dagny and Rearden both know they are held to the corrupt system by their love for their work. They know they are helping to feed the parasites, but their love is still too compelling.
With no one of substance or intelligence left in leadership roles, the Taggart Tunnel disaster is inevitable. Dagny would have let rational facts rule her decision and would never have allowed the train to enter the tunnel, regardless of the consequences for her. But Clifton Locey’s only concern is his own place in the hierarchy of influence and favor. He refuses to upset a powerful Washington man, even if his refusal ultimately kills the man. Although he will not say no to running the coal train, he is also very careful not to say yes either. The fear of taking responsibility is a characteristic shared by all of the looters. The issue of personal responsibility is critical to Rand’s philosophy. Her heroes are always decisive and responsible regardless of the situations they face.