“There are probably 30-to-40 trains a day through Evansville.”
The line runs from Chicago to Nashville and continues south through parts of Alabama and Georgia carrying everything from corn to coal, ethanol and various petroleum products and a variety of other freight, sometimes including hazardous materials.
“It’s one of those situations, with the rail industry, simply because of the large volume of what they move — it’s a concern,” said Ken Zuber, district chief for special operations and planning at the Evansville Fire Department.
In the June 17 Princeton accident, a CSX train with two locomotives, 89 rail cars and nine empty cars derailed, resulting in explosions seen for miles, fires that burned for several days and evacuations of the area. Five of the cars were carrying propane.
Freight railroads such as CSX moved 5 million carloads — that’s 567 million tons — of energy products, such as coal, ethanol and petroleum, in 2016, according to the Association of American Railroads. Not every rail car carries hazardous materials, but most that do reach their destination without a release caused by train accidents, the industry association says.
The railroad industry’s HAZMAT accident rate has decreased 63 percent since 2000, said the group, which cites the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.
However, the major railroads, particularly CSX, have come under scrutiny for their safety records after recent accidents. That focus has led CSX to hire a new chief safety officer and commission a consultant to examine its safety practices.
What each train specifically carries often remains a mystery unless an accident necessitates emergency responders to learn what they are dealing with, Weaver said.
He said officials have access to an online database that might help identify trains and their freight, but it typically proves unwieldy to use in rapid response situations.
Instead, emergency responders consult with the train engineer or conductor who possesses a document detailing the train’s freight, Weaver said.
That list, called a consist, includes a count of every rail car in the train, describing its position in the train and payload, Zuber said.
Among Zuber’s HAZMAT teams – the firefighters who respond to the spills, leaks and releases of chemicals and hazardous materials – are more than 50 firefighters, trained as HAZMAT technicians, operate from two Evansville fire stations, covering all three shifts.
Although in 2017 the Evansville Fire Department responded to 40 chemical hazards, spills or leaks, none of the incidents involved trains. In his 28 years as a firefighter, Zuber can recall only a handful of HAZMAT incidents involving trains. “It’s not even on a yearly basis that we get called out. They are not common, but when they happen it can be large scale,” Zuber said.