GRANITE?FALLS?- In 2011, there were 14 accidents involving trains, six of which resulted in at least one train derailing. That's not a lot considering how many trains are crisscrossing the country every day, but the consequences of a train accident can be very serious.
"Train derailments are low-frequency, high-risk," said Jeff Hilty, a trainer for the All Hazards Training Center at the University of Findlay, Ohio.
Hilty was teaching an all-day seminar course on Tuesday at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Granite Falls on Rail Car Incident Response for area law enforcement and first responders. The course was sponsored by the federal Department of Homeland Security and MinnWest.
"We're pointing out the five different levels recognized by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency) specific to railroads," Hilty said. "Railroad-specific hazards are one, they occur in a wider area than many other kinds of disaster, two, there is the potential for larger amounts of hazardous materials to be released, three, there is multiple agency response, and four, it's something that almost never happens."
Because railroad disasters are so rare, it is difficult for small agencies to justify the expense of training, so the DHS funds tuition-free courses in rural areas, Hilty said.
Jessica Kesteloot works in the Marshall office of the Southwest Minnesota Chemical Assessment Team.
"We're learning how to better assess railroad car incidents," Kesteloot said. "We can handle any type of incident which involves any chemicals which can be hazardous to the community."
That's a long list of chemicals carried by rail. The coursework involves an introduction to the engineering of railroad tracks, cars, and locomotives, and some pretty sophisticated chemistry. Not only are some chemicals toxic or flammable by themselves, but a train may be transporting different chemicals which react violently when they come into contact.
A lot of the training was teaching responders where to find the information needed to assess risks after a rail car incident, and how to read the shipping documents.
Derailments can happen through operator error when a locomotive engineer exceeds speed limits or uses improper braking technique. Faulty tracks, mechanical failure in the wheels, misaligned rails, stress cracks, or debris deliberately piled on the tracks can cause railroad car wheels to jump the tracks, according to Hilty.
"In 2009 a rare January tornado derailed a train in Illinois," Hilty said. "In one case in New Hampshire a locomotive derailed on packed ice and snow built up by snowmobiles."
And, Hilty said, the Department of Homeland Security is planning against the possibility of deliberately caused derailments as acts of terrorism.
The last major rail car incident in the area was a derailment in Balaton in 2004 that involved ethanol tanker cars. Local ethanol plants ship a lot of the flammable liquid by rail, which makes rail car response training of vital interest to small communities in the area.
"Canadian Pacific rail goes right through the city," said Tracy Police Chief Jason Lichty. "Trains from the Lamberton ethanol plant come through."