Web site lists rail-carried hazardous chemicals in real time

Published 15 March 2010

Railroad operator CSX now provides first responders and the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (CHEMTREC) access to secure Web-based information which allows CHEMTREC to find a train number, tank car number, and identify what is being transported in those cars; BNSF also provides CHEMTREC with manifest information, but only after a derailment; BNSF does, however, provide municipalities a list of chemicals it routinely transports through cities

Another small step toward better chemical safety in the United States. If a rail-carrier CSX Corp. train derails, first responders now have instant, real-time access to railroad manifests to learn whether the cars were hauling hazardous material.

Galveston Daily News’s Chris Paschenko writes that when Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific trains derailed recently in Santa Fe, first responders scrambled to find tanker placards and the engineer to learn the same information. On 22 August, twelve Union Pacific cars derailed, some carrying trace amounts of hydrofluoric acid. Six miles west on the same track, twenty-two BNSF cars derailed within a block of city hall and the police station, toppling ten propane tankers and spilling an asphalt based oil that prompted the evacuation of eighty residents within a mile of the derailment.

Santa Fe first responders would no doubt welcome instant confirmation to help protect lives when evacuations or shelter-in-place orders are required after potentially deadly releases of chemicals in transport.

Paschenko writes that the only immediate way to determine whether the BNSF derailment contained hazardous chemicals was to approach the overturned tankers with placards that describe what material was inside. “I initially provided dispatch with the placards I observed,” Santa Fe police Sgt. Eric Bruss said.

Bruss radioed the four-digit placard number to his dispatcher to interpret the contents, hazards and suggested actions, he said. “We did not know the totality of the cargo until we located the engineer and obtained a paper manifest from the train crew.”


The engineer printed copies of the manifest, detailing what materials were in which cars, Fire Chief Tommy Anderson said. “The manifest for that train was an inch thick,” Anderson said. “It would be nice to have the ability to access a Web site database the railroad had if there was an event and tap into it with a laptop.”

The technology already exists, with CSX providing real-time tracking of its hazardous cargo transports to CHEMTREC, the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center, which was created in 1971 from the American Chemistry Council and designed to assist emergency responders with incidents involving hazardous material and dangerous goods.

“It’s a Web-enabled system that’s highly secure, that allows CHEMTREC to find a train number, tank car number and identify what’s in those cars,” CHEMTREC director Randy Speight said. “It allows real-time access in seconds on the Web.”

CHEMTREC has used the system for three or four years, Speight said. First responders call CHEMTREC, which disseminates the real-time information about what’s on any CSX train, Speight said.

Note that BNSF provides CHEMTREC manifest information only after a derailment, company spokesman Joe Faust said. “For what you’re dealing with and who to contact, BNSF feels the best way to work with the community is on a one-on-one basis with emergency responders,” Faust said.

BNSF does, however, provide municipalities a list of chemicals it routinely transports through cities, Faust said.

CSX, with the cooperation of state Department of Homeland Security officials, implemented the program in early 2007, and real-time tracking of hazardous cargo is available in seven of the twenty-three states in which CSX operates, Gary Sease, a spokesman for the company said.

“It’s a pretty big deal to give outside parties our train movement information, but it’s also helpful to see virtually in real time where hazardous material may be,” Sease said. “CHEMTREC has access to see where shipments are.”

Paschenko writes that using CXS’s SecureNow system, CHEMTREC views the railroad’s network operations center and can focus on a specific area or zoom out to look totally at the 23-state system, sorting by all trains and toxic inhalation hazards. “They can see what traffic is looking like any point of the day,” Sease said.

Each train is represented by blips on a computer screen that resembles Chicklets, the square gum, Sease said.

The alternative of derailment investigation by first responders involves visually inspecting for potential threats to the community. “It’s real dangerous,” Anderson said. “I carry a set of binoculars in my car for that very reason.”