Preparing for a railway disaster in Ashland, Virginia

Repost from The Herald-Progress, Ashland, VA

Preparing for a railway disaster in Ashland

January 28, 2015

Every day, 40 trains carry 30,000 loads of freight – some containing volatile materials – while another 22 trains transport 6,000 passengers through the “Center of the Universe.”

A lot could go wrong.

But CSX and local emergency services officials assured members of town council last week that stringent planning and strong communication between agencies should help ensure a swift response in the event of a train emergency or prevent one all together.

The issue of rail safety is tied to what Bryan Rhode, CSX regional vice president in charge of state government affairs in Virginia, called an “energy revolution” currently underway in the United States.

Crowds line the train tracks in downtown Ashland as a CSX train makes its way through town in this 2012 Herald-Progress file photo.
Crowds line the train tracks in downtown Ashland as a CSX train makes its way through town in this 2012 Herald-Progress file photo

With increased domestic oil production come questions about how to get those resources to market. Rhode said that traditionally, crude oil would be transported by pipeline, but that infrastructure doesn’t exist in many of the new areas where the raw materials are being extracted, and that’s where rail comes in.

“This idea of moving crude [oil] by rail really sprung up a couple years ago,” Rhode said. “I’ve talked to people who have been with CSX much longer than I have and they tell me if somebody had come to them five years ago and said we’d be moving crude oil by rail, they would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

But it’s now something railroads are doing in increasing volumes even though Rhode said transporting crude oil still only constitutes about 2 percent of CSX’s business.

The issue has received increasing attention following a CSX train derailment in Lynchburg last April, when a large shipment of crude oil exploded along the James River and near the city’s downtown sector.

“In a lot of ways we got very lucky because nobody was hurt or killed,” Rhode said. “But it was still something that impacted Lynchburg, impacted the James River and something that we strive every day to avoid allowing to happen again.”

Even prior to the Lynchburg crash, there had been a push for safer crude oil transport. In February 2013 the Federal Railroad Administration issued a number of emergency orders and regulations aimed at enhancing safety. Following the crash, Rhode said the federal government implemented more stringent regulations concerning the shipment of crude oil by rail and HAZMAT materials, in general.

But despite those regulations and what Rhode called a culture of safety at CSX, accidents still can and do occur.

“We do everything we can to prevent accidents from happening, but when you’re moving huge amounts of material in large equipment, we all recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, things do happen,” Rhode said. “Our goal is zero preventable accidents.”

Emergency plans in place

Hanover is contained in the RF&P sub-division of what CSX calls its Baltimore division, bookended by Richmond to the south and Philadelphia to the north.

According to Henry Moore, division chief of planning for Hanover Fire-EMS, molten sulfur and crude oil comprise half of all hazardous materials making their way through the county on a daily basis. Ethanol carloads are also increasing with about 210,000 gallons of the volatile substance making its way by rail to Stafford County on a daily basis.

Moore said Hanover and the region have bolstered their foam suppression capabilities in preparation for a derailment or catastrophic event and that regional response teams routinely participate in emergency exercises in preparation for railroad accidents where hazardous materials are present.

Hanover has in place a standard operating guideline for responding to railroad emergencies and also maintains an initial responder checklist for public safety personnel created for joint response to train crises.

Anthony Callahan, deputy chief of the Ashland Police Department, said all Ashland officers are trained in how to handle critical incidents. In the advent of a train-related incident, responding officers are taught to first establish communication and to contact other resources. Officers are also instructed to designate a “danger zone,” where only emergency responders are allowed, and to set up inner and outer perimeters. They would then implement an incident command post to direct emergency personnel and secure a staging area for other first responders.

However, Callahan said that his officers will assume different roles based on the severity of the actual incident. In cases where a car is stuck on the tracks, for example, Callahan said the first responding unit would get in touch with CSX and work to get the occupants out of the vehicle, with the immediate consideration being the health and safety of individuals on scene and in the area.

In cases where there has been a collision requiring any sort of spill cleanup, Callahan said Fire-EMS would take the lead, with APD in a support role.

In case of an incident, Rhode said CSX also brings a number of resources to the table, including trained personnel and heavy equipment staged throughout its network to ensure a quick response.

If a community is impacted, CSX steps up to offer relocation services and local aid.

Rhode said that in the advent of an actual emergency, cross-jurisdictional communication is key. In the case of the Lynchburg incident, officials from CSX had existing relationships with state and local emergency response teams.

“We weren’t handing out business cards. We all knew each other; we’d worked together before,” Rhode said. “If you don’t know each other and you’re not talking to each other before [an emergency] happens, you’re probably going to have issues.”

Fortunately, ties are strong between CSX and local fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies, officials told town council.

Rhode said CSX partners with local first responders to make sure they have the training they need to effectively respond to an incident. This takes place through online courses and local “tabletop” exercises on up to specialized, in-person, training dealing specifically with crude oil accidents.

Moore said Fire-EMS is in the final stages of planning a joint Amtrak derailment tabletop exercise in Ashland with Randolph-Macon College and the Ashland Police Department. The training should take place in the coming spring, one more safeguard aimed at ensuring this train town also remains a safe town.