Back in October, the Landmark published a story about the proliferation of trains carrying hazardous materials, such as crude oil, all across the nation. In particular, these “bomb trains,” are coming through the hearts of places like Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside on their way to the Chicago rail hub.
Railroads are very, very tight-lipped when it comes to telling the public and even local government officials about what hazardous materials are coming through their towns and when they are going to be passing through.
The railroad companies say the information blackout is for security reasons, though it’s pretty evident these types of hazardous trains pass through the villages on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Canadian National all the time.
Anyone stuck at a rail crossing on any day can clearly see the black tanker cars bearing the diamond-shaped, red signs displaying the word “flammable,” heading east toward Chicago.
The BNSF says such hazardous materials make up just a fraction of the goods carried by rail throughout the country each day. And that’s true, no doubt. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of volatile crude oil to cause a devastating catastrophe.
Last week when a BNSF train, hauling 103 cars filled with crude oil, derailed outside of Galena, about 20 of the cars actually left the track and only a handful ruptured. But the resulting fire and plume of choking black smoke raged for three days.
Fortunately, the derailment happened in a rural area and no one was killed and no property was damaged.
Unfortunately, the Galena derailment wasn’t an isolated incident. In the past 30 days there have been at least three other serious incidents in which tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.
In addition to the fire and smoke, leaking oil has also threatened waterways. While none of those derailments occurred in an urban area, you get the feeling it’s only a matter of when, not if, such a catastrophe happens.
If you don’t think a derailment is likely in an urban area where rails get constant maintenance, don’t kid yourself. In 2013, there was a minor derailment — of tank cars — in Brookfield on the BNSF line between the Hollywood and Prairie Avenue Metra stops.
All the tanker cars, which apparently were not hauling any hazardous materials, stayed upright and no harm was done.
But what if they were full?
While fire departments such as Brookfield have had some training regarding such incidents, small local departments are woefully equipped to deal with such an incident. Police departments, apparently, have had little or no training on how to react if an explosive derailment happens in an urban area.
States, the federal government and railroad companies really need to make rail safety and emergency response capability a priority, and soon. All the warning signs are already there.
It shouldn’t take a Chicago suburb’s downtown being incinerated to make sure emergency responders know how to react and to demand railroad companies do all they can to ensure that our citizens are safe.