Suburban first responders train for hazmat train disaster
From a major derailment and crude oil explosion in Galena to a minor oil leak in Riverdale, both occurring in March, rail hazmat releases are a fact of life in Illinois, a major freight hub for the nation.
That reality sent more than a dozen local fire and police departments from Lisle to Barrington to a hazardous materials class sponsored by Union Pacific Railroad Friday in West Chicago.
Participants studied the anatomy of a tank car, trained how to secure a leaking valve and checked out a UP foam trailer used in chemical fires.
Railroad employees showcased technology and vehicles used to detect flaws in track and rails.
UP tests its 2,313 miles of track regularly and focuses on problematic areas, technicians said.
Cracks and flaws depend on the climate of a region, the age of the rail and the weight of the freight passing through, chief rail flaw detector Derick Beard said.
For example, "crude oil (sectors) are tested more frequently," he said.
UP also demonstrated an automatic braking system known as Positive Train Control using a mobile simulator. PTC is deployed when a crash is imminent, but the system is costly and neither Metra nor the railroads are expected to reach a Dec. 31 deadline mandated by Congress to have it active nationwide.
UP PTC Manager Craig Cox said the railroad was testing PTC in California, where a commuter train disaster in 2008 prompted the mandate. A computer screen showed the visual cues engineers will receive if they're speeding, which are followed by verbal warnings and a phone call to supervisors and dispatchers.
If the brakes are deployed, the train must halt until a supervisor shows up. "They'll want to know what happened," Cox said.
Overall, there were 37 hazmat releases in Illinois from trains in 2014, according to U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration statistics. Federal records show five releases in the first quarter of 2015, including the Galena catastrophe where more than 110,500 gallons of crude oil leaked.
Meanwhile, the amount of crude oil being transported by rail is increasing.