Local entities stay prepped to minimize railroad incidents

By Nicolas Wahl
Newton Kansan – May 21, 2015

The recent Philadelphia Amtrak tragedy and a fiery March freight derailment in West Virginia have heightened focus on public safety along the rails.

For places like Newton, where residents see high numbers of rail traffic everyday, knowing personnel are working to keep the public safe in the event of disaster is always a top priority.

“It’s always something that is on the forefront of our minds, potential disaster incidents in this area,” said Newton Fire/EMS chief Mark Willis. “It’s a continuous cycle of education, training and re-training. It’s making sure we have the modern equipment and are staying abreast of changes.”

The numbers

KDOT numbers show an average of 69.6 million freight tons moved along the BNSF MidCon Corridor — which passes through Newton — from 2000 to 2009. Additionally, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief brought 14,564 passengers through town in 2013.

According to Federal Railroad Administration office of Safety Analysis statistics there were 54 total accidents, 45 derailments, four collisions and 17 deaths along Kansas’ railroads last year. For perspective, Kansas had 58,245 auto accidents in 2012. A 75.33 per year average of Kansas derailments from 2000 to 2008 dropped to 47.5 from 2009 to 2014.

BNSF director of public affairs Andy Williams said the company had its fewest mainline derailments in history last year.

“The Federal Railroad Administration said 2013 was the safest year for the rail industry as well, following 2012 which had been the safest year in history for both BNSF and the rail industry,” Williams said.

Newton Fire/EMS has responded to four derailments on BNSF tracks in Newton since 2001 and another on the Union Pacific tracks near Elbing. None of these involved injuries or non-railroad property damage.

“There was a small fire within a container in one of those events, but it caused very little property damage other than to railroad property itself,” Willis said.

Local Emergency Planning Committee

Despite relative rarity, area emergency agencies understand the area’s proximity to potential situations. They have created a Harvey County LEPC to help keep committee members and citizens informed and aware.

“It ‘s a combination of emergency services and industry,” Willis said. “We do a lot of information and resource sharing at the local level in those meetings.”

It is another way local authorities are working with the public to get a jump should a situation occur. Harvey County Emergency Management director Lon Buller said BNSF is also part of the committee.

“We have to look to (BNSF) too because they have expertise in a lot of different areas when it comes to derailments, train wrecks and their effects,” Buller said. “That’s why we really appreciate the close relationship we have with them.”

Hazardous materials

“We have equipment to at least initially try to mitigate those events,” Willis said. “However there is no department around that would have the equipment to manage those all by themselves.”

Instead they rely on a network of area emergency departments, industries, as well as the Kansas Department of Health and environment and the Department of Transportation.

Buller said they are lucky to have what he called a unique situation where response and emergency departments throughout Harvey County hold good relations, standing ready for assistance when needed.

BNSF provided free railroad HAZMAT response training to 8,500 local emergency responders in 2014 in communities across its network. The railroad has provided training to more than 70,000 emergency responders since 1996.

Passenger trains

Responders have regular training to keep up to date on the needs in a passenger train event.

“Amtrak and BNSF have been gracious enough to bring in a passenger car about every other year and do some refresher training to remain familiar with all of the aspects of those particular scenarios, because there are definite differences between passenger and freight cars and engines,” Willis said.

Crew perform drills taking out the windows of the cars, and learn the unique steps required to perform rescue operations on the solid passenger cars.

“You have to know exactly how to get people out of there because those things are built like a fortress,” Willis said. “Conventional rescue tools have a hard time working in those situations because the cars are built so well.”

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