It started off as a simple idea.
Check out a few derailment stats in light of the train disaster in Glenview that killed a local couple, and voila, a column.
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But railroad safety turns out to be an onion-peeling process. A Federal Railroad Administration database leads to a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that leads to a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration document and so on.
That's why this week's column on railway transport of hazardous materials follows a Sunday story about derailment statistics.
Railroad officials told me that the number of derailments pales in comparison to the thousands of safe trips that transport goods to consumers and industry. One state employee questioned the focus on derailments when so many more fatalities and injury-causing accidents occur on roads and highways.
Yet, from 2002 to 2011, there were 1,511 derailments in Illinois, mostly low-speed incidents in rail yards. Of that total, 351 derailments were on mainline track in Illinois. Many were minor hiccups, but some messed up Metra commutes, destroyed infrastructure and took lives.
My downtown is bisected by a freight/Metra rail line that's a stone's throw from the Saturday farmers market, the ice cream shop and two coffee houses. It's idyllic. Moms with kids in strollers (me included), commuters and students all hang out, waiting for the huge freights carrying everything from coal to cars to hazmat to pass, unconcerned because nothing bad ever happens.
But consider the following stats from the Illinois Commerce Commission and Association of American Railroads:
• Railroads in Illinois carried 437.1 million tons of freight in 2009, of which 7 percent -- or 30.6 million tons -- were classified as hazardous materials. This could mean anything from "mild irritants" to poisonous and radioactive materials. The size of shipments can range from a pint to 42,000 gallons in a tank car, the ICC states.
"The big worry and concern is when you have hazardous materials involved in a derailment," Northwestern University railroad safety researcher Ian Savage said. "Bad things can leak out and go into the groundwater. These are real issues if a tanker car catches fire."
Considering the vast amount of hazmat rumbling through Illinois on freight trains, the number of derailments that involve chemicals being released into the environment is minuscule. But that doesn't mean the incidents themselves are insignificant.
The ICC reports 80 incidents from 2002 to 2011 in which train derailments resulted in the release of hazardous materials.
In same time period, there were 86 derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials in which no hazmat spilled.
Here's a look at some notable hazmat releases that occurred when trains derailed in 2011, according to ICC data.
• Jan. 27: A CSX train derailed in Decatur, releasing 2,900 gallons of diesel fuel.
• Jan. 30: A Union Pacific train derailed in East St. Louis, releasing 100 gallons of diesel fuel.
• April 8: A CN train derailed in Effingham, releasing 5 gallons of methyl methacrylate, a flammable liquid used to make resins and plastics.
• April 19: A TRRA train derailed in Venice, releasing 2,300 gallons of diesel fuel. TRRA is a small railroad operating in downstate Madison County.
• Oct. 7: An IAIS train derailed in Tiskilwa, releasing 180,000 gallons of ethanol causing an explosion and evacuations.
• Dec. 23: A BNSF train derailed in Galesburg, releasing 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
• Dec. 23: A BNSF train derailed in Joliet, releasing 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel.
So what's being done to reduce incidents, make tank cars safer and protect the public? Tune into next week's column for more onion peeling.
And if you've got any thoughts on the Glenview tragedy, derailments or rail hazmat transport in general, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'No, we're not crazy'
OK, that's not exactly what the Illinois tollway said in response to a reader's complaint that the locations of I-PASS and cash lanes on exit and entrance ramps make no sense.
Here's the official explanation. "While it may not seem consistent to some tollway customers, the fact is that the location of I-PASS-only and cash basket lanes at tollway ramp plazas are based on frequency of use. Since more than 84 percent of our customers use I-PASS, the I-PASS-only lanes are located in the more popular direction of travel at each location," tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams emailed.
"For example, at an exit where the majority of traffic is turning right, the I-PASS lane will be positioned on the right. This helps to keep traffic moving smoothly and reduces the potential for collisions after vehicles have passed through the ramp toll plaza.
"In addition, there are red, white, blue and yellow signs the size of a garage door that are typically located 500 to 800 feet in advance of each toll plaza that say "Pay Toll Ahead" and show the cash rate. A second large sign closer to the toll plaza depicts the location of the I-PASS and cash lanes and, again, shows the cash rate."
Ouch. Your Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) commute will get a little worse as the Illinois Tollway begins pavement repairs and shoulder widening between Elgin and Rockford. The construction is in preparation for road widening that starts in 2013. Work starts Monday between Mosquito Creek and the Kishwaukee River near Rockford. Two lanes of traffic will be kept open during peak hours, but expect lane closures overnight.
You should know
A working washroom and a working computer. Simple needs, but not always fulfilled on your Metra commute. Fortunately, the agency is in the midst of rehabbing 176 rail cars built between 1995 and 1998. It aims to fix 100 by the end of 2012. What can you expect? Revamped flooring and seats, new washrooms (please let the soap work), improved wheelchair lifts and electrical outlets so you can give your tired laptop a break. The cost of the makeover is $115 million, a much cheaper alternative to buying new rail cars, which cost up to $3 million each.
There's still time to suggest your priorities, move dots around on boards, fill out surveys and look in vain for free coffee at two Tuesday open houses regarding Metra's strategic plan.
The forums run from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Crystal Lake City Hall, 100 W. Woodstock St. and the Geneva City Hall, 22 S. First St. Or to fill out an online survey, go to metrarail.com.