The Dangers of Rail
Train derailments can be especially unsettling events. The ungodly sound, the seemingly uncontrollable chain-reaction of the crash, the magnitude of the damage, make it an extraordinarily horrid and violent occurrence. The possibility of hazardous chemicals release adds a level of anxiety and danger after the initial shock of the crash.
Altoona and many Mainline communities throughout the region live in the shadow of such disaster, but few of us worry much about what could happen. These concerns would seem to be minimized, not only because the risk is with us every day, but because accidents are so rare and emergency responders are prepared for such calamities. Railroads generally have good safety records and the deaths (from both crashes and chemical releases) are much lower than they are for trucks. Yet when an avoidable accident (like the 2012 derailment in Paulsboro, NJ) occurs, we wonder how we could have been so careless.
Last weekend's accident here in Altoona was the first notable train wreck that many younger Altoonans can remember. No one died and property damage beyond the Norfolk Southern right-of-way was relatively minor. No toxic chemicals were released (except for some fuel that was spilled) and the tracks were cleared and repaired in relatively short order. This was a credit to the railroad, emergency responders and the many contractors that stepped up to clean things up afterward. Blair County Emergency Management Director Dan Boyles was especially pleased, observing that responders' collective preparation resulted in a "methodical operation." But we should also be thankful for some good fortune. The end of this story would not have been a happy one had the accident occurred a few minutes sooner or the cars had been pushed a few dozen feet further.
Perhaps more alarmingly, many could have been sickened or killed had the train been carrying hazardous materials. There may be some very disappointed automobile dealers upset over the destruction of the cars and trucks being carried by the train. But there are also some very happy neighbors, grateful that there were cars, rather than chlorine, anhydrous ammonia or crude oil being carried by this train. Some critics across the country have complained that too many railroads have remained secretive about exactly what is carried on specific trains. They are concerned that too much information might enable folks with bad intentions to sabotage trains.
Blair County's Boyle explains that, while emergency responders are aware of the chemicals that can be on a train, they never know the particulars until there is an incident. Only then are railroads required to share that information. It takes time to sort out the proper response to different chemicals and Boyle says this results in "losing precious time" to formulate the best evacuation and containment strategies. While not perfect, the United States rail industry in general and Norfolk Southern in particular have good safety records. Boyle said this accident was an excellent exercise to help prepare us for a more serious incident. It would seem that everyone agrees that we continue to learn things to better handle accidents like these. But Boyle concluded, "There's still room for improvement."
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Drugs & the Environment
The Dangers of the Rail
The Town Erased by PCB
Hazardous Waste: Being Smarter
PCBs Live On