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updated: 9/12/2012 6:06 PM

Suburbs don't want to play derailment odds

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  • With freight train derailments occurring on main lines an average of 13 times a year in Chicago and the suburbs, local leaders don't want to play the odds that a derailment could lead to a hazardous materials spill. Tank cars, they say, should be reinforced to help keep that from happening.

       With freight train derailments occurring on main lines an average of 13 times a year in Chicago and the suburbs, local leaders don't want to play the odds that a derailment could lead to a hazardous materials spill. Tank cars, they say, should be reinforced to help keep that from happening.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 

Freight derailments occur on main line tracks an average of 13 times a year in Chicago and the suburbs, delaying commuter trains, messing up traffic and, in a July 4 tragedy, taking two lives.

But in a sense the region's been lucky. That's because several recent incidents did not involve the release of hazardous materials.

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"It could have been a disaster," Northbrook Deputy Fire Chief Jim Richards said in November 2009 after 18 freight cars derailed and toppled onto a local street. The train was carrying hazardous materials but grain and clay were the only cargo that spilled.

The July 4 derailment in Glenview, which killed Burton and Zorine Lindner after a railroad overpass collapsed on their car, spilled tons of coal, but not hazardous chemicals.

Illinois towns such as Cherry Valley near Rockford and downstate Tiskilwa weren't so fortunate. In a 2009 freight train derailment in Cherry Valley, highly flammable ethanol exploded, killing a woman who had been waiting at the crossing. In 2011, a fiery Tiskilwa derailment caused the evacuation of hundreds.

One community crisscrossed by railroads that doesn't want to play the derailment odds is Barrington. The village is pushing the federal government to require retrofits of existing tank cars to fix design flaws leading to punctures and ruptures.

The railroad industry notes that derailments are few compared to the number of safe trips.

However, "there are enough (derailments) and we recognize how devastating they can be," Barrington Mayor Karen Darch said. "So many tank cars can be together in the same train, if they hit the wrong thing or happen to be in the wrong place and you've got a wall of fire -- that can be a huge loss of life and property and devastation to a community."

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is considering the question of tank car design and will propose recommendations that the public can comment on eventually.

Meanwhile, the American Railroad Association has issued higher standards for new tank cars carrying flammable liquids. The association, however, noted that retrofitting an existing car could cost as much as manufacturing a new one.

"Relatively speaking, when you think of the liability, it's well worth it," Darch said.

Northeast Illinois has the second highest volume of freight traffic in the nation. Up to a third of all freight in the country originates from or passes through the region and that should double in 20 years, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reports.

The Daily Herald researched Illinois derailments following a July 4 derailment in Glenview, which has been attributed to tracks damaged by excessive heat.

An average of 35 derailments a year occur on mainline track in Illinois, according to a 10-year analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data.

The volume of freight traffic is on the radar of other communities that coexist with freight railroads, such as Elgin.

Mayor David Kaptain, a retired chemist, said he'll be waiting to see what the government recommends on retrofitting tank cars for better safety. Elgin just recently dealt with a derailment in November 2011 that delayed thousands of Metra riders and snarled traffic. Two freight cars with hazardous materials derailed but nothing spilled.

Tank cars "are always a potential danger," Kaptain said. "They design them to be so that someone can shoot a hole in them (without causing damage) but if they tip over they can conceivably break."

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