Rail Disasters a Matter of ‘When, Not If’

Every 90 minutes a train derails, and when something goes wrong, the potential for catastrophic damage and casualty is huge.At Firehouse Expo Friday, July 23, a class called "Passenger Rail Emergencies: A Comprehensive Look at Passenger Rail Systems and the Potential They Pose to First Responders,” gave attendees a glimpse into the hazards of the nation’s rail system.

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The course was conducted by Al Mullins, battalion chief of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire Department and Jim Forgo, battalion chief of the Prince William County (Va.) Department of Fire and Rescue.

“If you have a passenger rail system in your community, it’s only a matter of time before something will happen,” said Forgo. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when.”

Forgo gave some sobering statics on railroad equipment and frequency of accidents.  In 2010, there have been 596 accidents involving passenger rails to date. He said every 90 minutes, a train derails and every 115 minutes, a train hits a vehicle.

“Every year, about 1,000 people die in train accidents,” he said, adding that the sobering number is more than those claimed by the airline industry.

Mullins said that a locomotive engine can weigh up to 250,000 pounds, produce 480 volts to drive the apparatus and carry up to 2,200 gallons of diesel fuel, more than enough to qualify as a hazmat incident if spilled.

Additionally, the passenger cars routinely weigh more than 100,000 pounds each with a full train far in excess of two million pounds, Mullins said. Passenger trains routinely travel at about 70 mph, he said.

“And what do trains travel on - steel rails,” Mullins said. “And steel on steel doesn’t offer much resistance, so if the conductor dumps the full emergency breaking system and locks up every wheel, it’s going to take at least 1.2 miles to get it to stop. You need to keep that in mind when you’re working on rails.”

Additionally, Mullins said the shells of passenger cars are often made of stainless steel which means traditional hydraulic rescue tools will not work effectively to rescue people. Torches and saws will likely prove more effective.

Space inside the cars is also confined with 24-inch walkways and 21-inch wide doors to sleeper cars, Mullins said, pointing out that most Stokes baskets and backboards are 24-inches wide, leaving little or no room for extrication.

Both Mullins and Forgo said that pre-planning for a potential passenger rail emergency is key to good outcomes at a time of disaster. A passenger train accident can quickly deplete all the resources one department has and it’s important to have the knowledge of who can offer what before an accident happens.

“In a time of an emergency, the most valuable person you can have on the scene is the conductor, or someone connected with the railroad,” Mullins said. “They know how things work, they know where the emergency shut-offs are and they can tell you about the hazards you might be facing.”

While railroad personnel are important to have on the scene, lots of spectators are not, he said, noting that departments should be prepared for people to “come out of the woodwork” to investigate the train wreck professionally, or just as gawkers.

Gawkers can be a huge problem, particularly if the wreck is in a heavily populated area, he said. More often, however, accidents happen in remote area with little or no access. Therefore, he said it’s important for responders to know where the access roads are and where and how to open any gates that may be along the tracks.

“The best thing to do is know your system and be prepared for an accident,” Mullins said.