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home : most recent : statewide implications July 19, 2018

6/29/2018 6:59:00 PM
Is Evansville prepared for train derailment?

Mark Wilson, Evansville Courier & Press

It could have happened here:

The derailment of 23 train cars in Princeton, Indiana, that burned nearly 40 hours and caused the evacuation of dozens of homes.

That it didn’t happen in Evansville may have been down to chance.

The city is just one of many along one of CSX’s main north-south railroad lines.

 “Vincennes, Princeton, Evansville, Henderson – all have a common interest in CSX. Anything going north and south goes through all those towns,” said Cliff Weaver, director of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Emergency Management Agency.

“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.

Weaver partly attributes the low number of train-related incidents to the railroad companies’ safety efforts but also to something else – speed.

Although Evansville’s population density and urban traffic could increase the impact of a serious train accident, Weaver said, the same factor also limits the potential for such an accident to occur.

“The faster a train is going, the more damage it causes when it derails. When trains go through Evansville, they are usually going slower,” he said.

Should a spill or leak occur, emergency responders can double check information about a train’s contents by calling a toll free telephone number to CSX, Weaver said.

“The important thing is to isolate it and evacuate the area,” he said. “When it happens, dispatchers are probably getting sketchy information. The first responders, unfortunately, often have to sort it out.”

This means approaching from upwind and sizing up the situation from a distance, with binoculars if necessary,said Nick Adams, deputy director of the Evansville-Vanderburgh EMA.

If an evacuation is necessary, word would be put out through local news media, Adams said, but the only way to ensure affected residents know about it would be old-fashioned “boots on the ground and door-to-door.”

The EMA would work with the Red Cross to find a suitable church, school or parking lot where people could shelter and identify streets and landmarks to serve as boundaries for the evacuation area.

Oftentimes the safest response strategy is a defensive one, Zuber said.

“Sometimes you have to let it burn and work to lessen the impact on the environment and work to reduce the spread,” Zuber said.

He said CSX has been helpful in working with the Evansville Fire Department to provide unused tanker cars, when available, for firefighters to practice on.

Related Stories:
• Derailment cleanup continues Princeton 'dodged a bullet,' say local officials
• Princeton train derailment casts new doubts about CSX's safety culture
• What crosses through Gibson County in the many trains passing through?

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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