What If a “Bomb Train” Derailed at the Railroad Bridge at Northwest Highway and Davis St, Arlington Heights?


Stalled freight train in downtown Arlington Heights consisted of one tanker car with Di-Methyl Sulfate, one tanker car with N-Propanol, two unmarked tanker cars, and one tanker car that was not observed close up.

Trains known as “bomb trains” have been nicknamed because of their black, torpedo-shaped tanks that are filled with potentially explosive crude oil. Train derailments involving passenger trains and freight trains have been occurring with an alarming frequency. In fact the United States Department of Transportation predicts 10 oil-hauling train derailments per year during the next few years.

The DOT reports that the United States has experienced a dramatic growth in the quantity of flammable liquids being shipped by rail in recent years. According to the rail industry, in the U.S. in 2009, there were 10,800 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail. In 2013, there were 400,000 carloads.

In recent years, train accidents/incidents (train accidents) involving a flammable liquid release and resulting fire with severe consequences have occurred with increasing frequency (i.e. Arcadia, OH, Plevna, MT, Casselton, ND, Aliceville, AL, Lac-Mégantic, Quebec).

What scenarios could Arlington Heights face in the event of a train derailment?

First of all, crude oil and flammable materials are not the only hazardous materials that are transported along the Union Pacific Northwest Line. In fact, other materials may provide a much greater risk in the form of a toxic plume that could kill or seriously injure people from inhalation. Crude oil railroad tanker cars are on top of current news reports, but other toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, ammonia or Di-Methyl Sulfate could be more devastating — and could kill and injure more people.

Immediate assessment of a disaster and the hazardous materials involved would be necessary to determine whether residents in houses and business affected in a half-mile to one-mile radius would need to shelter-in-place or be evacuated.

Train derailment, bridge collapse kills two people buried in their car on Shermer Road, Glenview (July 4, 2012). This was the second derailment at this bridge, which is similar to the bridge at Davis Street/Gregory Street and Northwest Highway in Arlington Heights. Neither of the Glenview train derailments involved hazardous materials.

Glenview train derailment on November 1, 2009. No injuries and no hazardous materials were involved.

A high-speed train derailment caused by a railroad bridge failure at Northwest Highway and Davis Street/Gregory Street could cause a pileup of tanker cars near or against the building at the Northwest Central Dispatch System 9-1-1 Center. There have been two derailments at a similar bridge that failed in Glenview. Fortunately no hazardous materials were involved in either derailment in Glenview.

It is most likely that a derailment near the small railroad bridge would involve lower speed, and that tanker cars would remain closer to the bridge, but flowing flammable liquid, such as crude oil, N-Propanol, ethanol; or exploding propane tanks could take out (at least functionally) the radio tower and the building at Northwest Central Dispatch. If fire consumed the building and the tower, it is anybody’s guess how well portable fire radios and portable police radios would function while attempting to hit off the next nearest radio towers in neighboring communities. It is likely that the radios would totally fail or have serious dead spots because the multiple towers in the northwest suburbs work together, and are finely tuned or balanced in order be reliable. The failure of radios would cause a serious delay of notifications, evacuation and management of the fire and toxic materials.

The fire department would probably switch to the IFERN mutual aid frequency, which is not dependent on successful functioning of Northwest Central Dispatch System’s equipment. Firefighters use dual band radios that can go independent of the Starcom21 system that firefighters and police use in everyday work. The police do not have dual band capability. Their communication, which would be important for evacuation orders and reporting victims discovered and hazards discovered near the main disaster, would likely be seriously hampered and delayed. Examples of hazards discovered could be reports flammable liquid leaking into basements, discovery of dead birds and animals from toxic exposure, and the discovery of collapsed human victims. Police officers would likely have to resort to cell phones or text messages, but the cell phone networks would likely be overloaded by residents attempting to communicate with friends and family about the disaster and their safety.

The first police officers on the scene would likely experience respiratory problems in the case of a release of toxic gas. If their radios weren’t functioning because of the destroyed tower, they would have difficulty warning other police officers not to get too close to the toxic scene. Any citizens within about 100 feet of leaks would literally have to run for their lives to escape exposure to toxic gas, such as chlorine. Inhalation of chlorine gas grabs the Hydrogen out of water (H2O) in the moisture in the lungs to form Hydrochloric Acid (HCl). The acid HCl then destroys lung tissue. Some gases cause straight asphyxiation. A toxic gas can displace oxygen in the air, so victims are left without enough oxygen for metabolism, which can cause a fatal case of asphyxiation and lactic acidosis — sort of like not having enough oxygen when you exercise too hard, only much worse.

A common evacuation radius for large fires involving flammable liquids and/or the release of toxic gas is one-half mile to one-mile. The railroad bridge next to Northwest Highway and Davis Street/Gregory Street is only about 135 feet from the northeast corner of the 9-1-1 dispatch center building. The railroad bridge is only 260 feet from the base of the public safety radio dispatch tower. Toppled railroad cars would likely be less than 200 feet from the radio tower, and less than 60 feet from the northeast corner of the 9-1-1 dispatch center building. In a high-speed crash with an abrupt stop, train cars would possibly pile up and hit the NWCDS facility and radio tower. The employees at Northwest Central Dispatch System (NWCDS), who serve millions of citizens in the northwest suburbs, would be in a very dangerous position.

A one-half-mile to one-mile evacuation zone radius from a derailment disaster could include all of the Stonegate neighborhood, the Scarsdale neighborhood, Mariano’s, Walgreens, Prospect High School, Windsor Elementary School, Dryden Elementary School, Miner School and The Moorings.

A one-half mile radius straight north would be about Kensington Road. A one-mile radius straight north would be about Euclid Avenue. A one-half mile radius straight south would be at about Central Road.

If railroad cars were toppled along Davis Street along the south side of the railroad tracks, firefighters would have a very difficult time accessing the NWCDS building to fight a fire there. A park district yard to the south and to the east has no southern access, and is even further hindered by a berm along the north border of Melas Park. A long warehouse is located to the west of the NWCDS facility, which would further block access to the NWCDS facility in the event that Davis Street was obstructed.

A long derailment, or a derailment further west on the UP Northwest Line could present a similar complex disaster. Arlington Heights Fire Station 1 is only 40 feet from the railroad tracks. The station frequently houses MABAS Decon-1, which is the federally-funded vehicle for working with decontaminating citizens and firefighters in the event of a HazMat incident. De-Con 1 is frequently parked inside the firehouse only about 90 feet from the nearest railroad track. Toppled train cars at Station 1 could possibly take out one of the most important vehicles specified for a hazardous materials emergency.

With the current configuration of the police headquarters tens of police vehicles could be destroyed by toppled train cars. The north border of the Arlington Heights Police Department Headquarters is only 160 feet from the nearest railroad track. A new police headquarters is being considered by Village of Arlington Heights leaders at the same site.

Train wreck, derailment fire in Lynchburg, Virginia April 30, 2014.

An article in the trade journal Fire Engineering in July 2014 reports that the increase in crude oil transportation has left many fire jurisdictions and agencies unprepared in planning for and mitigating a large scale public safety and hazardous emergency.

The Fire Engineering article reports that because of the size and complexity of a rail tank car-related incident, the development of multiagency and regional response plans including training exercises is key to protecting the public and mitigating the hazard. It is recommended that localities identify and establish written impact zones along railroad track right-of-ways that exceed the standard ERG (Emergency Response Guide) one-half mile evacuation guideline. Currently the Village of Arlington Heights only publishes one generalized HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Box Alarm Card designation that does not include any specific impact zones related to the railroad tracks. For this report, Arlington Heights fire officials were not asked if there is an additional ERG document specific to the railroad tracks for Arlington Heights. For security reasons, officials may not release the specific information.

There is no known hazardous materials disaster drill or training exercise that has been designed or conducted to face worst-case scenarios on the UP Northwest Line that would involve a functional knockout of Northwest Central Dispatch System’s 9-1-1 center call-handling and radio dispatching capabilities, and/or involve the release of multiple hazardous materials from multiple containers or tankers.

The Fire Engineering article also recommends that localities need to quickly understand which routes and at what commodity flow rates the railroad is using to transport large volumes of crude oil, ethanol and gasoline. It is generally understood that higher volumes of hazardous materials are transported on other Chicagoland lines, such as the UP West Line. However, as the video at the top of the page shows, there are hazardous materials being transported on the UP Northwest Line. Even smaller volumes could cause very dangerous conditions in tight, highly-populated areas. Most fire chiefs would probably prefer to be faced with 10 crude oil tankers derailed and burning in the middle of a farm field, than a heavily flowing leak of chlorine or Di-Methyl Sulfate from a single tanker car in a highly-populated area.

The worst chlorine gas disaster in the United States occurred at 2:39 a.m. on January 6, 2005 in Graniteville, South Carolina when a train traveling 47 MPH was accidentally switched off the main line and hit another train on a side track. Sixteen of 42 freight cars on the moving train derailed. Three tank cars contained chlorine. Only one of the tank cars containing chlorine was breached, releasing 60 tons of chlorine gas. The tank car that released chlorine was the ninth car from the locomotives, and contained 90 tons of chlorine. The train engineer and eight other people were killed — some while running for safety. One additional death occurred months after the accident. A man died on April 21, 2005 from respiratory problems he developed from driving through the chlorine gas cloud just after accident occurred. About 554 people complained of respiratory difficulties, and 5,400 people in a one-mile radius were evacuated.

Based on emergency responder observations and the locations of those receiving fatal injuries, the chlorine cloud extended at least 2,500 feet to the north; 1,000 feet to the east; 900 feet to the south; and 1,000 feet to the west.

The Safer Future
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are proposing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), titled “Hazardous Materials: Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for HHFTs,” in order to increase the safety of crude and ethanol shipments by rail. The US DOT Federal Railroad Administration is proposing revisions to the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR; 49 CFR Parts 171-180) to establish requirements specific to high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs), which would be defined as trains comprised of 20 rail car loads of a Class 3 flammable liquid. The risks posed by high hazard flammable liquids transported by rail are considered to be addressed with the following the following recommendations:

(1) rail routing restrictions;
(2) tank car integrity;
(3) speed restrictions
(4) braking systems;
(5) proper classification and characterization of mined liquid and gas; and
(6) notification to State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs).

Last month, DOT set lower speed limits, from 50 to 40 mph, for oil trains going through urban areas in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Albany.

New tank cars constructed after October 1, 2015, are required to meet the new DOT Specification 117 design or performance criteria. The prescribed car has a 9/16 inch tank shell, 11 gauge jacket, 1/2 inch full-height head shield, thermal protection, and improved pressure relief valves and bottom outlet valves. Existing tank cars must be retrofitted with the same key components based on a prescriptive, risk-based retrofit schedule. As a result of the aggressive, risk-based approach, the final rule will require replacing the entire fleet of DOT-111 tank cars for Packing Group I, which covers most crude shipped by rail, within three years and all non-jacketed CPC-1232s, in the same service, within approximately five years.

In the May 2014 derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, it was confirmed that 14 of the 16 or 17 railroad tank cars that derailed were made to the new CPC-1232 standard. The 105-car train derailed on April 30, 2014 in downtown Lynchburg. One breached car resulted in burning oil and a leak of tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the James River. The breached tanker car was built to the new, and supposedly safer, CPC-1232 standard. Lee Crowell, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Directory of Petroleum and Wetlands Enforcement clarified that all of the tankers that derailed were the newer CPC-1232 models. The train was traveling at about 33 mph the train — slower than new rules would mandate.

How about those two tanker cars without Hazmat placards in the video at top … Were those tankers empty? Did the Hazmat placards fall off? Did vandals steal the Hazmat placards? Did they contain an unknown hazardous material? Whether safer mandates are implemented or not, citizens and community leaders need to be prepared for train disasters involving hazardous materials.

See also …

Federal Railroad Administration DOT Announces Final Rule to Strengthen Safe Transportation of Flammable Liquids by Rail

NTSB Collision of Norfolk Southern Freight Train 192 With Standing Norfolk Southern Local Train P22 With Subsequent Hazardous Materials Release at Graniteville, South Carolina January 6, 2005 [PDF]

The Cardinal (with more information on Di-Methyl Sulfate and N-Propanol or propyl alcohol) Stalled Freight Train at Metra Train Station Reveals a Common, Highly Toxic Hazardous Material in White Tanker Car

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