Thirteen miles per hour may not seem fast enough to cause a fatal accident, but when dealing with a 4,791-ton freight train more than a mile long, 13 miles per hour can have catastrophic results. Thus was the case on Nov. 15, 2011, when two trains collided near Clarkston, killing two crew members of one train, injuring two others, and forcing the evacuation of dozens of businesses, two schools and hundreds of residents.
It was just before 6 a.m on that day in 2011 when the conductor of a southbound train pulled off the main track near Clarkston to allow another train to pass. However, operations went terribly wrong when the conductor of the diverted train fell asleep and re-entered the track, colliding with an oncoming train on the main track, killing the two crew members on the northbound train and seriously injuring two crew members on the southbound train.
The crash also led to a fire and derailment of some of the train cars. Firefighters were able to rescue two crew members trapped inside a locomotive, but were unable to determine the contents of some of the breached tank cars. The fire and release of unknown materials caused emergency responders to evacuate all of the people within a half-mile radius of the crash site, as well as those up to a mile downwind of the train.
O akland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard recalls the crash and trying to get a better view of the burning rail cars in order to determine what, if any, hazardous materials might have leaked or caught fire during the accident.
"We wanted to get a better eye on it, but didn't want to get our aviation unit over it because we didn't know what it was, and we didn't want them flying into any kind of toxic air plume," Bouchard said. "That helped me determine that we should have some unmanned capability for emergencies."
When the smoke cleared, more than 1,570 people, 38 businesses and two schools had been evacuated for nearly four hours. Costs for the damage from the crash was estimated at $1.4 million.
Bouchard said the county's response team has since expanded some of its capabilities, one of which was adding an unmanned drone. The unit is essentially a small quad-copter equipped with a camera. The small remote unit gives authorities a way to inspect incidents without putting officers in danger.
For many emergency responders, the first step in reacting to a train crash is trying to determine what, if any, hazardous cargo is on the train and has been released as a result of the crash. Each year, millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, radioactive material, commercial explosives, flammable liquids, corrosives and other hazardous materials are transported across the country by train. Yet, first responders have little to no information about the types or quantities of materials being transported along local railways, or the frequency of the shipments.
"They probably aren't real key on releasing that information," Bouchard said of the rail carriers. "It could be sensitive. We don't maintain records on what they are moving."
The lack of records isn't unique to the sheriff's office. Local and state officials across the country have raised concerns that they receive little to no information about when, or what kind of, hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes.
Patrick Waldron, public affairs manager for CN Transportation, said the rail company shares some hazardous materials information, however such information isn't available to the general public.
"It's upon request," he stated. "CN shares hazardous materials information with some communities that we travel through. For instance, (with) first responders, to make sure that they have information that they need in the case of an emergency. The federal government considers it security information."
Rail lines operated by CN run through Oakland County. The line runs north/south between Ferndale and Pontiac, through Royal Oak, Birmingham, Bloomfield and other communities. The CN line also runs east/west from Pontiac to the west end of Oakland County through Waterford, White Lake, Springfield and Holly.
Waldron said sharing information with first responders is a longstanding voluntary practice. "We also provide training to communities," he said.
Royal Oak Fire Chief Chuck Thomas said most contact with the railroad company is made during the city's Arts, Beats and Eats event each summer.
"They might (share information) with the police, but I get nothing," Thomas said. "We do a lot with them during Arts, Beats and Eats. All the trains that come through then, they avoid all the hazardous stuff for that time period, but day-to-day information? No."
Birmingham Fire Chief Michael Metz said the railroad does provide training for HAZMAT personnel when requested, but there is no schedule for training with the rail companies, and no regular communications about the types of materials coming through the community.
"It might be helpful," Metz said about knowing specific materials that are coming through the area.
"We have our HAZMAT team that will train with them from time to time," he said. "They don't advise us in advance of what rail cars are carrying, but each train has to have shipping papers on board to say which cars have what in them, and MSDS sheets. We just have to assume there are hazardous materials on the train."
In addition to the CN rail line, CSX operates tracks that run north/south from the southwest end of Oakland County, north through Novi, Wixom, Highland Township and through the northern portion of the county near I-75. In total, CSX operates and maintains more than 1,200 miles of track in the state, including more than 3,160 public and private rail crossings. It also operates a bulk transfer terminal in Wixom.
"None of the trains are required to identify what's on the train, but all rail cars must be placarded. If there's a corrosive substance or something of that nature, there is identification on the car that identifies that," said Wixom Fire Chief Jeff Roberts. "We have a pretty good relationship with CSX. They provide information annually that is very general about the types of things they haul."
Roberts said rail carriers provide additional information to responders when it's requested. Further, he said, CSX provides training to local responders.
Among the types of materials that Roberts said come through the community are crude oil, liquid propane, coal, ammonia, chlorine and other materials. Other commonly transported materials include ethanol, polyethylene, potassium chloride and nitrogen fertilizer.
"Anything good that can be transported over the rail, we see it in Wixom," Roberts said. "We see a lot more crude oil tanks, liquid propane and hopper cars full of coal. As for the cargo cars, we don't have a clue what is in there."
Nationally, freight traffic is at an all-time high, particularly shipments of crude oil coming from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Regulators have warned that crude oil has the potential for explosion, prompting the FRA on May 7, 2014 to issue an emergency order regarding the shipment of Bakken crude oil. Additionally, the department advised rail carriers to avoid specific types of tank cars for the shipment of crude oil.
The emergency order requires rail carriers operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil, or about 35 cars, to provide each state's State Emergency Response Commission information about the operation of these trains through their state. Nationally, more than 750,000 barrels of crude oil are transported daily by rail each day, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Under the order, notification to state SERCs must include the estimated volumes of Bakken crude oil being transported, frequencies of anticipated train traffic and the route through which it will be transported. The order also requires railroads to provide the state with contact information for at least one responsible party and advises railroads to assist the SERC as necessary to share information with appropriate emergency responders.
"Upon information derived from recent railroad accidents and subsequent DOT investigations, the Secretary of Transportation has found that an unsafe condition or an unsafe practice is causing or otherwise constitutes an imminent hazard to the safe transportation of hazardous materials," the DOT said in issuing the emergency order. "Specifically, a pattern of releases and fires involving petroleum crude oil shipments originating from the Bakken and being transported by rail constitute an imminent hazard."
In addition to the emergency order, the FRA and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on May 7 issued a joint safety advisory to the rail industry regarding tank cars.
"The safety of our nation's railroad system, and the people who live along the rail corridors, is of paramount concern," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in issuing the order and related advisory. "All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil, and today's actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars."
The order comes on the heels of an April 30 train derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia that resulted in a massive crude oil fire and an unknown amount of oil being spilled into the James River. The 105-car train was stocked with Bakken oil when it derailed, sending more than a dozen tanker cars near the front of the train off of the track. Some of the derailed cars were DOT-111, a type of tanker car that has been fingered by federal transportation officials for years as a problematic rail car.
"Investigation determined that DOT-111 tank cars have poor performance in crashes," investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board stated in an accident report regarding an Oct. 7, 2011 crash in Tiskilwa, Illinois. "The poor performance of DOT-111 general specification tank cars in derailments suggests that DOT-111 tank cars are inadequately designed to prevent punctures and breaches and that catastrophic release of hazardous materials can be expected when derailments involve DOT-111."
The Tiskilwa derailment involved nine ethanol cars, three of which failed during the fire and erupted into massive fireballs and led to temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees.
The NTSB also identified DOT-111 cars as being vulnerable to failure following a June 19, 2009 derailment that resulted in an ethanol fire. The fire, which occurred near a road crossing, caught several cars on fire that were stopped at the railway crossing gates, killing the occupant of one vehicle and injuring several others.
An accident investigation of the derailment indicated the fire had burned for more than a half hour before first responders evacuated some 600 residents from the surrounding area or were able to begin efforts to extinguish the blaze because officials were unable to determine the burning substance.
"Several vehicles were in the roadway near the derailed equipment, with one vehicle on fire. EMS was attending to several injured persons," the investigation report stated. "At this time, responders had not been able to identify the contents of the tank cars or to determine whether pressurized rail tank cars were involved."
The report states that first responders couldn't identify the placards on the tank cars because they weren't visible on the burning cars. It wasn't until the railroad operators informed the local emergency dispatch personnel that the cars contained ethanol that responders began using fire suppressing foam to extinguish the blaze.
The NTSB investigation identified the vulnerability of the DOT-111 tank cars, the effectiveness of CN's internal emergency communications system and accuracy of train contents as safety issues.
Waldron said that CN Transportation is a member of the Association of American Railroads and supports the rail industry's position, which calls for upgrades and phasing out of the DOT-111 cars.
"Freight railroads have for years worked with emergency responders and personnel to educate and inform them about the hazardous materials moving through their communities," the AAR stated in response to the May 7 emergency order. "These open and transparent communications will continue as railroads do all they can to comply with the Department of Transportation's Emergency Order."
In addition to the measures taken under the federal emergency order and advisory, the AAR and federal Department of Transportation in February came to a voluntary agreement regarding the transport of crude oil.
Under the agreement, members of the AAR will make several commitments to improving safety issues, including: increasing track and mechanical inspection frequency beyond current regulations; conducting routing analysis; establishing new speed restrictions; and utilizing braking systems which will reduce piling up of railcars in the event of a derailment.
"We share the administration's vision for making a safe rail network even safer, and have worked together to swiftly pinpoint new operating practices that enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail," AAR President Ed Hamberger said about the agreement. "Safety is a shared responsibility among all energy supply chain stakeholders. We will work with our safety partners – including regulators, our employees, our customers and the communities through which we operate – to find even more ways to reinforce public confidence in the rail industry's ability to safely meet the increased demand to move crude oil."
Specific steps to be taken under the agreement include: increased track inspections, which took effect on March 25; equipping, by April 1, enhanced braking systems on trains with 20 or more carloads of crude oil; the implementation of a Rail Corridor Risk Management System by July 1 to aid in the determination of the safest and most secure rail routes for trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil; restricting speeds to 40 mph in federally designated high-threat urban areas on trains that include at least one DOT-111 tank car. Speed restrictions include the Detroit area, Sterling Heights, Warren and a 10-mile buffer extending from the border of the combined area.
Additional steps to be taken by July 1 under the agreement include the use of increased safety technology regarding wheel bearing detectors along the track; increased emergency response training and tuition assistance; and emergency response capability planning.
Locally, information about the types of hazardous materials traveling through each community appears to vary. At the county level, Oakland Sheriff Bouchard said his office doesn't receive any advanced notification regarding the shipment of hazardous materials. None of the law enforcement officials contacted had any information about the shipment of hazardous materials in their communities, and fire officials had limited information. Essentially, it is up to each community to prepare for emergencies that could possibly occur from a train accident.
"They (CSX) have a self-certification program we do every two or three years," Roberts said of first responders in Wixom.
While local responders have the responsibility of preparing for train accidents, Roberts said CSX provides training, and ensures adequate resources in the event of an accident. The measures are key steps to working with the community, according to the AAR.
Under the voluntary agreement with the AAR, railroads will provide $5 million to develop a specialized crude by rail training and tuition assistance program for local first responders. One part of the curriculum will be designed to be provided to local emergency responders in the field, as well as comprehensive training designed to be conducted at the Transportation Technology Center facility in Pueblo, Colorado. The funding will provide program development as well as tuition assistance for an estimated 1,500 first responders in 2014. The training facility is one that has already been utilized by local responders, Roberts said.
"All the railroads have to be able to provide (cargo information) if you call and ask," Roberts said in regard to information sharing with emergency officials. "They also have to be able to provide you with a certain level of training. They take care of us pretty well, as far as first responder training.
"If something happens, they are assuming they will provide someone to the command post. They would identify what assets they need from us, and we tell them what level of response we can provide. Anything beyond that, they can provide. They can literally turn a small city into a large city in a short time. If we need 15 fire engines and we only have two, they will make them appear. That's how deep CSX's pockets are."