Ask MC – Train Derailment

Let me start by pointing out the possible Official Ask MC mascot to the left, submitted by Bill Bushman on the Facebook page.  There’s still time to get your submissions in!  Mostly because I have no deadline and there is no prize.

Today’s Ask MC is brought to us by another Facebook fan, Brian Rivera:

I have a couple of scenarios for you. As an employee of the railroad, I am curious as to how much first responders are trained to deal with trains and train accidents. I have a few insights to offer as well, I just want to see what you guys would do.

Okay, here goes.

Scenario #1: You are on patrol and you discover a tractor-trailer carrying roll steel high-centered on a railroad crossing. The track is known to be a busy main frequented by numerous trains. No information is available as to the crossing because the information sign has been painted by vandals. You know it is only a matter of time before the next train comes.

What do you do? 

Scenario #2: You are dispatched to a call of a train versus vehicle accident in which no information is available other than that there are several serious injuries on scene.

Upon arrival, you notice two apparent things.

The locomotives are derailed, and there is a shuttle bus pushed nearly a quarter of a mile from the crossing. There are three people still trapped in the bus, alive and attempting to free themselves. A member of the train crew quickly makes contact with you and informs you that there are several alert cars containing chlorine (1017 zone 2) on the ground but he isn’t sure if they are leaking just yet. The crossing gates and lights, along with the crossing information sign, have been destroyed in the collision.

What do you do and what information must you have in order to begin dealing with this?

Thanks for the questions, Brian!

I have some follow-up questions that need answering before I can answer:

1. Is hysterical crying and/or running away a possibility?

2. Is this the train from Polar Express?  If yes, is Santa on board?

3. If I save everyone, do I get to keep the conductor’s hat and/or pull the handle on the whistle?

4. Is Thomas the Tank Engine involved?  He could notify Mr. Topham Hatt…that dude should be able to call the shots.

If you’ve ascertained that my questions are a stall technique, you win a prize.*  I will attempt an answer based solely on what is, hopefully, common sense.  I must add the caveat that there is no way this would happen in my jurisdiction as we don’t have any trains.

Regarding Scenario #1, I would immediately contact dispatch (because they have numbers for everybody), give them the location of the rig and request they contact the railroad to notify them of the hazard.  I would do all that from a healthy distance away in case Amtrak happens to speed around a corner.  I would also send one patrol officer in each direction of the tracks in an attempt to notify any on-coming trains of the impediment….maybe a couple mile in each direction?

Regarding Scenario #2, I will assume Fire/EMS is either already on scene or at minimum en route.  Either way, I would notify them of the chlorine hazard (about which I know nothing, but I’m assuming it can’t be good) so they can, in turn, notify their HazMat people.  I would try to confirm how many vehicles were involved.  If it was just the train and the shuttle bus, I’d attempt to get info from the alert passengers as to how many people were in the vehicle and if they are all accounted for.  I’d request as many units as are available and close the roadway and possibly (depending on the chlorine issue) either start having folks evacuate or shelter-in-place (I assume I would be taking direction from Fire on that one…that’s their bailiwick).

Once the scene was as secure as possible, I’d try to get the gist of the collision from the conductor and/or passengers of the shuttle bus.  Again, I’d notify dispatch to alert the railroad of the collision and stop any/all other rail traffic.

That’s the best I can do with little/no specific knowledge regarding rail collisions.

Let me pass the buck on this one:  If you’re a LEO and the above scenarios happened in your neck of the woods, what would you do? And a follow-up question: Brian, what would you have us do?

*Again with the prize?  There is no prize.  Why can’t you people just try to learn something?  Sheesh…greedy!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Snark is encouraged. Being a prat is not.

10 thoughts on “Ask MC – Train Derailment

  1. Incredibly difficult scenario, in either case. As best I have been able to ascertain from my experience with law enforcement (not being in law enforcement myself, but several family members, including my wife, are), the second scenario in particular is more of a HazMat / EMS specialty. The extent of police involvement would seem to be just what you described, blocking off traffic to prevent congestion in the affected area, as well as making a report of the accident and getting all witness statements. I can’t imagine the PD taking on Fire / EMS responsibilities unless it were a dire emergency and none were available.

  2. With regards to number one, probably the best thing that you can do is send officers in both directions to flag. Most railroads recognize anything waved violently on or about track as a signal to stop immediately. The railroad usually assigns flagging distance based on maximum track speed (which can run anywhere from forty to sixty or seventy miles per hour for freight trains and ninety miles per hour for passenger trains like Amtrak). A semi truck carrying something as heavy as rolled steel (just a random example in this scenario) can definitely derail a train.

    Here’s an interesting thought. Most main line are controlled by automatic signals (called automatic block signals), which are used for the speed and spacing of freight trains. Without going into too many boring specifics, automatic signals are controlled by a continuous conductive circuit, meaning if there is something breaking that conductivity, the signals that control that block will go to their most restrictive indication. That indication will either be ‘stop’ or (on certain railroads) ‘proceed at restricted speed’, which means be able to stop in half the range of vision and look out for obstructions and broken rail. How does this translate to you? Well, you can falsely trip the signals to make it appear as though the track is occupied. Trainmasters frequently use a jumper cable like device to test crews on their reaction to a ‘dropped signal’, watching how they react as it corresponds with the rulebook.

    Take a set of jumper cables and attach one side of them to each rail. USE ONLY ONE COLOR, POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE. This will create a short circuit condition that will shunt the signal system to make it think that the space is occupied by a train. There is no guarantee this will work, but it’s better than cleaning up a derailment based on the fact that the train dispatcher didn’t get the message out in time. Just a little food for thought. This will not work if the rail is in unsignaled territory. You will usually see the crossing gates activate if the circuit is shorted. I’m not telling you to do this, but it might make a difference if you’ve got precious seconds.

    In the second scenario, the train crew will be your best resource for finding out what the train has in it. If the train crew is incapacitated just remember a few key rules:

    1. Stay uphill and upwind. If it’s a gas (such as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia), it will follow the wind and settle in low places such as culverts and storm drains.

    2. The train documentation is the most important thing. This is where you will find your hazmat numbers (i.e. 1017). You can use your little 2008 emergency response guidebook (train crews are also required by federal law to have one in their possession when hauling hazardous materials) and it will give you your immediate steps to containment. This will also be displayed on placards. Emergency contact information is also found in train documentation.

    3. DO NOT SMOKE.

    4. Be wary of fog, as it may be a gas leaking from a rail car. Watch this video and you will see the fog in the police car’s spotlight.

    Get with your local railroads (BNSF and Union Pacific) and see if they offer some training classes on basic railroad operations as well as hazmat response. Operation Lifesaver also has volunteer presenters and training available to first responders.

    Sorry for the long post MC, but that was a few random tidbits and thoughts.

    • Holy cow…I should have just had you answer your own question. 😉

      I was totally gonna do the jumper cable thing, but I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all.

  3. Not a LEO, but…
    A. great idea to send officers up the line in both directions to flag trains down. Go as far as you can up to a mile or two (it can take that far for a freight train to stop) unless you get to a switch where trains could come from either direction.
    B. chlorine is bad news. Really really bad news. It was used in WW I as a chemical warfare agent. It will cause severe chemical burns and can cause death.
    C. I am going to have to remember the jumper cable trick in case I ever see something like this happen. Is there a way to tell if the tracks are signaled at that point? I’ve noticed some areas have a cable bonded to the rail on either side of each fish plate (where they haven’t installed continuous or welded rail that is) – is this for lightning protection or for the signaling system? Obviously calling 911 is the first priority so they can notify the appropriate rail line though.

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