The Chicago region is a railway hub hosting up to one-third of the nation's freight traffic.
We're used to trains; they blend into the scenery until a calamity -- like the July 4 Union Pacific Railroad derailment that caused a bridge collapse and killed a Glenview couple -- catches everyone's attention.
Freight is our fateBy 2040, the amount of freight moving through Chicago and the suburbs will grow by 1 billion tons for a total of 2.4 billion tons annually, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning predicts. The region, however, is notorious for train congestion now, and CMAP warns that if we don't plan appropriately, it will only get worse.
That's why last week's column was about rail safety, and I'm continuing the theme today with a focus on hazardous materials.
The amount of freight containing hazardous materials safely transported by train is significant -- about 99.9 percent, according to the Association of American Railroads.
To give some context, about 29.4 million carloads of freight a year travel through the U.S. and nearly 6 percent -- or 1.8 million carloads -- contain hazardous materials.
Problem is, when something goes wrong, like a derailment or collision, it can domino quickly into an event that takes a life or results in the evacuation of a community.
One notable Illinois example occurred in June 2009, when a Canadian National Railway train carrying ethanol went off the tracks in Cherry Valley near Rockford, causing an explosion that killed a woman, injured others and evacuated about 600 households.
And, last October in downstate Tiskilwa, a freight train with ethanol derailed, evacuating about 800 people.
So what's being done to prevent hazmat spills? I wish there was a simple answer, but that's not the case.
Railroads are required by law to accept hazmat shipments. The AAR along with tank car manufacturers and shippers belong to a tank car committee that sets standards for the industry and advises the Federal Railroad Administration.
With a database of more than 40,000 tank cars damaged in the past 40 years, "we understand very well how tank cars perform in accidents and what can be done to improve their performance," AAR assistant vice president of environment and hazardous materials Bob Fronczak said Thursday.
• In 2008, the committee recommended that all new tank cars transporting chemicals that are toxic to inhale be manufactured with thicker shells and shields on the ends to make them stronger and resistant to releases.
The FRA adopted the recommendation in 2009, but on an interim basis. Meanwhile, the tank car committee is looking to increase those 2008 safety standards.
• In 2011, the committee issued higher standards for tank cars that carry flammable liquids including ethanol and crude oil, also seeking thicker shells and shields to reduce punctures.
The FRA has yet to act on these recommendations. That means while railroads and some manufacturers are following them, other tank car builders are holding back out of concern that the government may not adopt the standards verbatim, resulting in obsolete products, Fronczak said.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Cherry Valley derailment and issued recommendations in March. Among them: improving the design of tank cars carrying ethanol so the ends and shells resist punctures; upgrading outlet valves at the bottom of tank cars so they stay closed during crashes; and modifying the design of stub sills (boxlike structures) that tanks rest on and the pads that are sandwiched between the two.
The NTSB has not been notified of any corrective action yet, agency investigator Stephen Klejst said.
The tank committee is studying the stub sill issue, Fronczak said, noting that problems occur if the pads don't break cleanly from tanks but tear them instead.
The Cherry Valley disaster caught the attention of a group of towns that fought CN's 2009 merger with the smaller EJ&E Railroad because it would increase the number of freight trains running through communities like Barrington and Aurora.
Through their coalition, dubbed TRAC, the towns petitioned the government to require the safety standards for new tank cars carrying ethanol and other flammable materials be adopted for existing tank cars.
Failing to do this will "provide no real protection to the general public in derailment situations for decades to come," TRAC attorneys wrote.
They added that inaction means the government "rewards industry for two decades of insufficient progress in insuring public safety with standards that make these tank cars more robustly crashworthy when hauling dangerous flammable materials."
The AAR has said that retrofitting an existing tank car equals the cost of building a new one.
TRAC's petition was filed this spring. But after the Glenview derailment, the issue of safety still "is on everyone's mind," Barrington Mayor Karen Darch said, "especially in an EJ&E situation where there's exponentially more freight trains carrying more stuff."
Got an opinion about railroad safety or any other transportation issues? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
Lots of comments this week on railroad safety and one from a reader who called my picture outdated. We'll stick with the railroad emails.
Ernie Halley of Palatine wrote, "no matter what people think of railroads, it is the safest and most efficient way to ship large quantities of hazardous materials. Although I am not familiar with tank trucks, a railroad tank car is one of the strongest shipping containers built. Chlorine tank cars are a minimum ¾-inch thick. And for some, more hazardous products, there are tank cars that have a shell 1¼-inch thick.
"There is no tank truck with a tank shell that comes even close to those thicknesses. The reason is that they would be so heavy that it (would) not (be) cost effective to ship by highway. I would much rather see tank cars with hazardous materials, going down the tracks, than tank trucks running down Northwest Highway or Rand Road."
And Wesley Martin said, "I can't seem to determine if you are condemning the railroads for their few accidents, or applauding them for their safety record.
"I have lived at this (Palatine) address for 64 years which is directly across the street from the Union Pacific's northwest line from Chicago to Harvard and on to Madison, Wisconsin. During this time, I remember only two derailments in the area. One derailment was in downtown Palatine, approximately 1954, where the derailed cars piled up to a height of over 20 feet. The other derailment was at the Quentin Road crossing, approximately 1961, where (about) a dozen cars derailed.
"I consider it safe to live along side of the railroad tracks."
Steer clear (if you can) of Route 25 north of Country Club Road in St. Charles until Aug. 10. IDOT will close the road south of Fox Glen Drive to replace a culvert. Detours will be posted to Main Street and Dunham/Kirk Road. The work is part of a bigger project -- a $21 million bridge over the Fox River at Red Gate Road. To learn more, check out www.redgatebridge.org/.