Railroad Safety "Train"ing

Aug 25, 2015

81 cars of a Canadian Pacific train went off the tracks near Dubuque in February. Some caught fire, others leaked ethanol and diesel into the Mississippi River.
Credit Dubuque Telegraph Herald

Rail car traffic has increased dramatically across the state with the transport of grain, ethanol, and tractor parts and in the future, perhaps hazardous pipeline materials.  Much of the time the journey is made without incident, but if there’s trouble, those who respond want to be prepared. With more trains covering greater amounts of track, those in charge of safety want to be sure they’re ready in case of an emergency.  This past February, an 81-car Canadian Pacific train went off the tracks near Dubuque and caught fire. No one was injured but eight cars leaked ethanol and diesel into the Mississippi River for several days. 

Kevin Techau of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District says when accidents happen, a quick assessment is made to find out who’s in charge.

“The Federal Railroad Administration will work closely with the county emergency management, if it happens in the city, with the police department or the sheriff’s department," he says. "The Iowa Department of Transportation has rail inspectors, also the EPA and the Iowa DNR is if there is actually is a spill of toxic materials.”

Even if the spill does contain toxic materials, Susan Dixon with Iowa’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division explains all response begins and ends at the local level.

“Very rarely do they actually get to the other end of the bookend which would be response and support from the state for larger incidents," she says. "The last time I remember this happening was a chemical explosion in Sergeant Bluff in the 1990's when the state gave support to hazardous materials teams. “

Dixon says just because it’s a rare event, it doesn’t mean they aren’t prepared in case it happens. A state agency that is more involved with train crashes and derailments is the Iowa Department of Transportation.   Spokesperson Tammy Nicholson says her office is preparing for accident simulation training this fall.

“We do go through some day-long table top exercises to simulate an accident to identify what gaps in communication might exist before a real life situation occurs,” she says.

Often it takes a train crash or a derailment to bring all these groups together, so instead of waiting for that to happen, federal state and local representatives are gathering this week in Ankeny.  Steven Fender is the Regional Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We don’t know  each other as well as we could," he says.  "We don’t know each other’s policies and practices  as well as we could and this symposium seems like a good way to glue us all together, build some relationships and get to know each  other a little bit better.”

Fender’s office does safety inspections, accident investigations and follows up on consumer complaints in a five state region. He says the numbers for Iowa from 2014 through the first half of 2015 are better than most.

"We see a 34-percent reduction in highway rail grade crossing accidents, total train accidents are down 50-percent, and our two heavy-hitter accidents -- track caused accidents and human factor derailments -- are down 50-and 56-percent respectively, so things are looking pretty darn good in Iowa right now and tending in the right direction.”

The first-of-its-kind Iowa Railroad Safety Symposium is being facilitated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa, the State Department of Transportation and the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management office.