Lake Forest-area residents might have dodged a bullet Wednesday after a freight train carrying sulfur derailed but did not spill.
The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the situation that started shortly after 3 a.m. when 11 rail cars went off the rails and piled up alongside the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Nine of the rail cars contained molten sulfur, a hazardous substance in liquid form that is used to make sulfuric acid. No leaks or injuries occurred, authorities said.
"I think it's fortunate there were no injuries, it wasn't around a densely populated area of town, and there was no further damage relative to spills and leaking," Lake Forest Mayor Donald P. Schoenheider said.
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield noted that "an accident like this is a clear reminder that we need to be constantly working to enhance the safety of our rail lines and protection of our communities."
UP crews were still righting rail cars using cranes on a section of track just east of busy Route 41 and west of Deerpath Road Wednesday afternoon.
Air quality is still being monitored. Sulfur typically has a rotten egg smell and can irritate or burn the skin upon exposure.
The derailment occurred on tracks that are not used by Metra.
Authorities could not say at what speed the train was traveling or give a preliminary cause of the derailment. The federal investigation could take a few months.
"We are all grateful that no one was hurt and no hazardous materials were released in the derailment," said Schneider, a Democrat whose district includes Lake Forest.
The derailment occurred near the Skokie River Nature Preserve, which contains trails, virgin prairie and rare species.
Terri Janecki, who was out walking her dog, called it "scary. I wonder what made it derail?" she said.
Pam Gilmore, who was skiing in the preserve, wondered why there was no notification for visitors at the entrance and was relieved nothing spilled into the environment. "There's a wonderful spring-fed river" in the preserve, she said.
Concerns about rail and hazardous materials have risen in the suburbs with a spike in trains carrying crude oil and ethanol and a number of high-profile derailments.
"We're digging deep into the impact of freights. There's an increase in freight traffic, trains are getting longer and more frequent, locomotives are getting heavier," Schoenheider said. "We're really trying to explore what's going on, who controls this and what we can do to lessen the impact to residents."
Lake Forest firefighters and police officers first on the scene were able to interview the engineer, review the manifest and quickly determine nothing was leaking, Police Cmdr. Craig Lepkowski said.
Firefighters then called out the Lake County and McHenry County Hazardous Materials Teams to "ensure all was OK and to be on hand if there were any issues," Lepkowski said.
Authorities warned of intermittent lane closures throughout the day on northbound Route 41.
"We apologize for the impact to commuters on nearby Highway 41," UP spokeswoman Calli Hite said.
The train was traveling from Butler, Wisconsin, to Chicago. Two of the derailed cars were empty.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a recent fiery derailment of 27 railcars on a UP train carrying ethanol in Iowa March 10.