Are the Procedures and Precautions for Freight Train Derailments Proficient?

Lia Koski, Staff Reporter

  A freight train carrying chemicals and combustible materials derailed off of its tracks in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, 2023. An investigation is being conducted to determine the cause of the derailment. The incident in Ohio spotlights numerous concerns regarding the freight train system and its manufactures. 

  Shortly after the derailment, local residents from both the Ohio and Pennsylvania areas were told to evacuate. The chemicals that were leaked were later burned by the authorities in a trench, igniting several environmental concerns for that area as well. The train was from the company, Norfolk Southern, and now the company is having to clean up contaminated soil and water, attend public meetings, and take other measures to ensure that they are taking responsibility for the situation. 

  Several communities are now trying to counter these concerns, including the town of Mundelein. The main railroads for freight trains in Mundelein run along route 45 and route 83. The primary company for the freight trains that run through Mundelein is Canadian National (CN). 

  These freight trains carry all sorts of things. A special agent of a class one freight railroad company explained how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRD) prohibits any class one railroad from discriminating against carrying certain materials or substances. This means hazardous chemicals could be passing through Mundelein just like they did in Palestine, Ohio, making it even more necessary to have proficient precautions in place and ready to use. 

  In the event of a derailment, Mundelein has procedures to follow, many of which depend on the situation itself. Brian Kisselburg, a commander with the Mundelein Police Department, informed how “every train is required to have a manifest of what is being carried, so if there was an incident it could be [tracked].” Kisselburg explained that the trains use a placard system, one that is also used by semi trucks. The fire and police departments could determine the best way to proceed with a derailment of a train based on what they are carrying. 

  Kisselburg added that while there may have been train derailments in other towns in Lake County, there has not been a significant train derailment in Mundelein in over 20 years. 

  In the event of a train derailment, one of three Battalion Chiefs for the Mundelein Fire Department, Brad Sashko would function as the initial Incident Commander. Meaning that he would be responsible for communicating with the dispatch center and relaying information to and from fire department crews. He or one of the other Battalion Chiefs would serve as the initial Incident Commander until representatives from State (IEMA) or Federal (FEMA) agencies intervene, depending on the scale of the event.

  According to Sashko, if a freight train with hazardous materials were to derail, the fire department would request MABAS, a mutual aid box alarm system. 

  Sashko explained how MABAS would provide hazmat technicians from Countryside, Lincolnshire, Long Grove and other surrounding areas to help. Mundelein could also receive help from other counties including ones from nearby states like Wisconsin. The Mundelein Fire Department has two members who are specifically part of a hazardous materials team, and the rest of the fire department is relatively trained in the basics of this field as well. 

  “If there was an issue, it wouldn’t just be Mundelein taking care of it. Obviously, the fire departments would be involved, and more police departments would be involved. The public works administration and emergency management would also get involved depending on how bad it is,” Kisselburg said. 

  Sashko and the special agent from the class one railroad company both stressed the importance of collaboration when it comes to dealing with an issue of this sort. “No municipal fire department, for the most part, is equipped to handle something like this on their own,” said Sashko. 

  Additionally, the special agent of the class one freight railroad company explained how federal government agencies will also intervene if necessary. For instance, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would evaluate the situation and bring any required resources to the scene. Then, the federal health department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would search for any toxicity found in the soil, plants, or even in people. Finally, the National Transportation Safety Board would conduct an investigation as to why the derailment occurred and how it could have been prevented. 

  In addition to the procedures Mundelein has established in the event of a train derailment, the freight train companies have their own safety features. According to the special agent, a freight train company’s job is to educate other departments and counties on these features. Much of this education focuses on the threats relating to distracted driving around the railroads; however, safety instruction also includes providing update memos about the train’s systems. 

  “In the US, all freight trains have a positive train control on them. As the train is moving down the tracks, it is doing all kinds of calculations and making sure that the tracks are where they are supposed to be as well as the balice/rocks under the tracks,” said the special agent from the class one freight railroad company. This agent also mentioned how every train is equipped with a camera to be used to discern the cause of a derailment if it were to occur.

  Mundelein uses a combination of procedures from the train companies as well as from their own departments. It is vital that Mundelein maintains communication with these companies to ensure successful collaboration. 

  “The conductors have their own protocol. Canadian National has their own protocols,” Kisselburg said, “we are working together as a management team; everyone has a different part or crew for the problem. It’s a whole process that they have involving any major incident.”

  Luckily, Mundelein has yet to use these procedures. 

  “We’re pretty blessed in this area. If there were changes that we found need to be made obviously we would address them, but right now there hasn’t been a need to change anything because we do have so many resources that are available,” Sashko said. 

  These derailments throughout the country emphasize the importance of railroad safety. Derailments and chemical spills could occur anywhere: in a big city, in rural areas, or even in a local town such as Mundelein. All residents of Mundelein have an obligation to analyze if these procedures are enough to ensure safety.