Although railroad emergency incidents are rare, responses to such events are important for any fire department. Trains carry everything—United States Army tanks for the war on terrorism, steel and plastic raw materials for manufacturing facilities, automobiles and other finished products, farm produce, and more. Today, intermodal shipping is the fastest growing segment of rail transportation. Intermodal shipments, formerly called piggyback trains, include trailers and containers that are carried on flatcars. Finished goods such as televisions, computers, and clothing made internationally are shipped in through international ports.

As emergency responders, we always think of the worst-case scenarios: “Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” However, for railroads, “Safety and accident prevention are embedded in all of our operations,” explains Skip Elliott, assistant vice president for public safety and environment with CSX Transportation. Rail companies make money by moving trains loaded with goods or products; accidents and injuries cost money and can delay or completely stop operations for an entire rail line. “Accidents are just too expensive for us to live with. It is much better business and better for everyone to run a safe railroad,” Elliot concludes.

(1) Photos and figures courtesy of CSX Transportation unless otherwise noted.

The railroads’ safety record is impressive. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the volume of rail hazardous-materials traffic has doubled since 1980, with approximately 1.7 million carloads moved annually (photo 1). The rate of railcar haz-mat releases resulting from a train emergency is one for every 48,000 shipments. More than 99.99 percent of all haz-mat shipments reach their destination without incident. The United States Department of Transportation’s Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) notes that the rate of unintentional releases of haz mats from railcars has decreased 38 percent since 1990. These numbers are significant when compared against the rail’s chief competitor, the trucking industry. From 1993 through 2002, three fatalities were attributed to rail haz-mat incidents while 108 people died as a result of highway haz-mat incidents. In 2000, according to the RSPA, there were 1,055 haz-mat releases from railcars, mostly minor releases during loading or unloading. That same year, almost 15,000 truck-related releases occurred. Although rail and trucks carry about the same ton-mileage of haz mats, trucks are 16 times more likely to be involved in a haz-mat release.1 CSX Transportation, the largest railroad east of the Mississippi River, handled almost one half million haz-mat loads in 2003, with only five derailments resulting in loss of product from seven railcars.


Moving freight by rail involves numerous steps and key people in the process. It is important that firefighters, haz-mat teams, and other emergency responders understand the complex intricacies of railroad operations, which will help expedite on-scene decision making and enhance the safety of their members and communities.

Let’s consider a shipment of one tank car of methanol from a Midwestern manufacturer to a gasoline-blending facility on the West Coast. The shipment starts with the preparation of the shipper’s bill of lading, similar to the shipping papers carried by over-the-road trucks. This document shows the contents of the car, the shipper, the consignee (the receiving customer), and the required haz-mat information (i.e., material shipping name, U.S. DOT hazard class, packing group, and emergency telephone number). This document may be faxed or sent electronically to the servicing railroad. If a small short line railroad serves the shipper’s facility, the train crew may receive a copy of the bill of lading from the shipper when picking up the tank car there and transport the bill and tank car to the short line’s rail yard.

The rail crew inspects the car prior to accepting the shipment to ensure that the placarding matches the information given and that there are no apparent product leaks. The short line creates an electronic waybill through the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), an electronic database (managed by the AAR) Amer- ican railroads use to manage rail shipments.

The short line assembles the methanol car along with other outbound cars and delivers them to an interchange, its point of interface with a major rail carrier.

2) A classification yard such as this one can be quite large and have multiple entrances. Preplanning is essential for effective response.

The United States has seven major rail carriers (Class 1 railroads): Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern, and the U.S. portions of Canadian Pacific and Canadian National (the former Illinois Central). When a Class 1 railroad receives a shipment from a short line at the interchange, the car is again inspected and moved to a classification yard, sometimes called a “hump yard,” for the small hill (or hump) in the yard that uses gravity to place cars into classification tracks by destination (photo 2).

At the classification yard, the inbound group of cars from the short line is moved over the hump and separated into classification tracks based on the scheduled outbound train for the individual cars. A hump yard is like a hub terminal for an airline, at which passengers arrive from one city, separate, and board other planes bound for different destinations.

The methanol car is routed to a classification track with other westbound cars. Cars from multiple tracks are then combined in the departure yard, and locomotives are added to form a train. The terminal personnel use an electronic database to track the cars in the train and create the consist, which is the paperwork the train crew needs before departing the yard.

Rail Paperwork

Rail consists’ appearance differ by railroad but contain the same basic information. The four components include the tonnage graph, the position-in-train document, the train listing and haz-mat description, and the haz-mat special handling instructions and emergency handling precautions.

In a rail emergency, one of the responders’ critical tasks is identifying the individual cars. Each railcar has a specific reporting mark, similar to the vehicle identification number on an automobile. The reporting mark consists of a series of between two and four letters followed by a series of between three and six numbers (Figure 1). Railcars are listed on the train consist by reporting mark in order behind the locomotive to the rear.

Tonnage Graph. The tonnage graph, the first section of the train consist, lists all the cars in the train and the approximate tonnage of each graphically. This allows the locomotive engineer to see how the train is made up and how it will handle based on the terrain of the main line. Each train is built differently, and each, in turn, requires adjustments in train handling by the engineer. Curves and grades (both uphill and downhill), when coupled with the number and type of locomotives assigned to the train, must be considered when moving a train that may weigh more than 10,000 tons and stretch more than a mile behind the engineer.

The tonnage graph shows all the cars in the train in their order behind the locomotive (“TRN POS”). Hazardous-materials shipments are easily identified by use of the capital letter “H” in the graph instead of asterisks for other commodities. A quick glance at the number of H’s going across the graph shows the responder whether a particular car is loaded or just contains a residue of product. The four-digit UN/NA number is shown to the right of the reporting marks for cars containing hazardous materials.

Immediately following the tonnage graph is the restriction key for codes indicating shipments with certain restrictions, such as haz mats or loads with excessive height or width.

For example, in Figure 2, the tank car of methanol is the seventh car behind the locomotive. It is marked “R” in the left column, and the restriction key indicates it is carrying a haz mat. Following the car’s train position number is its reporting mark and a three letter code: “L” (loaded), “T” (tank car), “B” (plate size); “1230” (the UN/NA number).

Position in Train. The position-in-train document shows the location of each hazardous-materials shipment in the train and indicates the UN/NA number. Since a train may pick up and drop off numerous individual cars en route to its final destination, the position of the haz-mat cars can change. This form allows the conductor to update the position of each haz-mat car in the train after pickups and drop-offs. If cars containing haz mats are picked up, the conductor must also have the information detailed in the train listing and haz mat description section (Figure 3).

Train Listing and Haz-Mat Description. The Train Listing and Hazardous Materials Description section is the third part of the paperwork and contains detailed information about all railcars in the train. For nonhazardous commodities, some information about the contents of a railcar will be shown, with a single word denoting the contents (such as “steel” or “grain”). For haz mats, more information is given, essentially mirroring the contents of the bill of lading. The haz-mat description will include the proper shipping name, DOT hazard class, packing group (if applicable), UN/NA number, and marine pollutant or EPA reportable quantity designation, if applicable. The shipper and consignee are identified, as well as a 24-hour emergency telephone number. This information will be present for each car containing hazardous materials. For mixed shipments, such as those found on trailers or containers loaded on flatcars (intermodal shipments), multiple descriptions will be found for the various commodities listed (Figure 4).

Hazardous Special Handling Instructions. The Hazardous Special Handling Instructions include information for each haz mat on the train. Although not as detailed as a material safety data sheet, these instructions provide first responders with excellent general information about the commodities and what to do under certain emergency scenarios such as fire, material release, and personnel exposure. These instructions augment the materials available to the first responder or haz mat team, and responders should obtain this document from the conductor of the train crew, who is responsible for providing this paperwork (Figure 5).
Click here to view Figure 5 in PDF.

Train Movements

After the car inspectors from the railroad’s mechanical department have inspected the train’s cars for safety issues and performed safety checks (e.g., brake tests), the train can begin its journey. The main-line train crew should have proper paperwork. With the tank car carrying methanol, the train leaves the classification yard and heads west. Along the way, the train is under the control of a dispatcher, who gives it the permission to occupy sections of the rail line by operating remote-controlled switches and signals. Most rail lines are of the “single-main” variety, meaning a single set of tracks passes through an area. For trains that meet along a single-main, pull-offs, known as sidings, allow one train to stop while another train passes on the main line. Which train stops and yields or proceeds first depends on its priority. Intermodal trains, which frequently carry cargoes for delivery companies, and passenger trains have a high priority.

Along the way, the train’s position is determined by railroad mileposts, which are helpful for emergency responders. Grade crossings, where roadways and railroad tracks intersect, are identified by railroad milepost as well as by a unique DOT ID number. These numbers are located on markers mounted at the grade crossings that identify the crossing, the owner of the rail line, and a 24-hour emergency telephone number (photo 3).

Although you may know a road locally as “Post Oak Road,” the railroad may identify it as crossing number 234567W at milepost ZAB 176.4. Preplan-ning for rail emergencies should include a survey of your jurisdiction. Identify all grade crossings, and record their crossing numbers, mileposts, and railroad contact phone number.

If multiple railroads operate in your area, make sure that you document the correct owner of the rail lines at the grade crossings. Calling the wrong railroad in an emergency delays appropriate response. Identifying the location by milepost instead of community name is preferable when talking to rail personnel. Railroads may operate across many states; the railroad may respond to Smyrna, Georgia, unless you indicate the location is at milepost 000J20 in Smyrna, Tennessee. The railroad may identify an area with a name that is unknown locally. In Cleveland, Ohio, railroaders know the area at milepost QD 173 as Collinwood, which does not appear on any map except the railroad’s. Historically, the railroad may have arrived ahead of the people in some areas and may have given it a different name originally. Railroad names arose from a particular geographic feature of the area, such as “Sinks” and “Tunnel Hill” in Kentucky.

Figure 1


Figure 2. Tonnage Graph


There is no single United States railroad that runs from coast to coast. This train, originating in the Midwest, will have to be delivered to another railroad that can carry the methanol car to the West Coast. The first Class 1 railroad will interchange this train with another Class 1 railroad, which will send it to another classification yard at or near the interchange point, where the methanol car will be placed into a westbound merchandise freight train. This process may repeat itself two or three more times before the car reaches the yard nearest the consignee facility, where the car will be placed on a local train and delivered.

At each interchange and classification yard, the methanol car is inspected by trained railroad professionals who look for any safety problems with the car and perform repairs as needed. Hundreds of people are involved in taking this shipment from the originating point in the Midwest and moving it across the country to the gasoline-blending facility that needs the product.


Although the freight car in our example arrived safely at its destination, as most do, incidents do sometimes occur. However, since relatively few rail incidents occur, many emergency responders have never been involved in managing a rail incident. The size of rail equipment can be menacing (loaded tank cars can weigh up to 286,000 pounds and contain up to 30,000 gallons of product), and the cleanup process at a derailment is new and foreign to most incident commanders. However, the response process to a rail incident, and the people who will assist in the effort, are fairly standard. Unified command must be implemented early in the response, and key positions such as planning, liaison, operations, and communication (especially with rail officials) must be staffed. Understanding how incidents occur and the rail response process can be helpful to the prospective unified incident commander.

There is a variety of rail incidents just as there is a variety of automobile accidents. Not all motor vehicle responses require a medevac helicopter, and not all rail incidents require a full haz-mat response. The type of response depends on the type of incident and potential for public safety or environmental issues to arise. Below are some typical rail incidents.


Derailments occur any time the railcar’s wheels lose contact with the top of the rail. Usually, when a car derails, the wheel breaks contact with the rail and contacts the ground or the rail bed. Most derailments do not result in overturned railcars or spillage of product, and many result in no damage to the cars themselves. A derailed car can be placed back on the track and may continue on to destination. Derailments result from one or a combination of three causes: (1) track failure, (2) mechanical equipment failure, and (3) human error/train handling. From a haz-mat response standpoint, a derailed car, even if overturned, may not suffer structural damage to the tank and may present no risk to public safety. A thorough damage assessment is required when haz-mat cars derail and overturn.

Grade-Crossing Collisions

When a motor vehicle and a train collide, there may be a vehicle driver/passenger injury or fatality, and the train crew may be at risk. Grade-crossing collisions involving tank trucks containing hazardous materials have been responsible for numerous fatalities. Motor vehicles involved in grade-crossing collisions can have their fuel tanks damaged, and the locomotive fuel tank could be punctured, resulting in a fuel spill.

Trespasser/Pedestrian Incidents

When moving rail equipment hits a person, death and amputation are common. A train contacts a person or vehicle approximately every two hours in America.

Nonaccidental Releases (NARs)

Figure 3

Product may escape from its container without involving a derailment or other incident. This is the most common rail haz-mat incident and is usually the result of the shipper’s failure to properly secure the railcar’s valves or fittings. Although railroad personnel generally do not inspect valves and fittings, most NARs are found by rail personnel in rail yards during inspection or switching movements. Loose bolts, valves left partially open, and improperly aligned gaskets are some of the causes of NARs. These releases are normally small, involving a few gallons or less of product.

Diesel Fuel Spills

Railroads use millions of gallons of diesel fuel daily. Although fueling spills are largely contained with concrete collection pits, spills outside these areas are not. Locomotive fuel tanks can rupture in a derailment or grade-crossing collision, and as much as 5,500 gallons of diesel can be released. Fuel tanks may be overfilled in mobile fueling operations in which locomotives are refueled by tank trucks, or the tank may be punctured by track debris placed there by vandals. The diesel engine inside the locomotive can suffer a mechanical failure and release fuel.

Figure 4. Train Listing and Haz-Mat Description



Regardless of the type of incident to which a responding agency is called, a few basic safety rules will help keep responders safe.

  • Expect movement on any track at any time. If a train is sitting still, expect it to move; if a track is unoccupied, expect that a train is coming. Verify with railroad personnel on-site that it is safe to work on or around rail equipment prior to placing yourself or your crew in a position where you could be struck if equipment moves. Look in both directions before crossing a railroad track. If you must cross track with standing rail equipment present, leave a 25-foot gap between you and the nearest railcar. This provides you enough time to react if the train begins moving.
  • Avoid walking between the rails. Although it may seem to be a convenient place to walk, rail equipment is much quieter now than in the past, and the locomotive may be at the rear, especially during switching operations. Keep all tools and equipment at least 30 feet or more from the track. If you need to stretch a hoseline across the tracks, dig out the gravel (called ballast) in the railbed between two crossties and run the hose under the tracks.
  • Watch where you step at all times, and do not stand on the top of the rail. The area around the railroad track has uneven walking surfaces and tripping hazards, especially after a derailment where earth has been moved. The top of the rail is a smooth surface and presents a slipping hazard, especially if mud or grease is on the bottom of your boots. Wear steel-toed workboots or firefighting boots at all times. Head and eye protection are essential when working around rail equipment.
  • When working on rail equipment, make sure that rail personnel have protected the track against unwanted movement of equipment. Track switches should be secured with padlocks and marked with blue flags and flashing lights so that equipment cannot be inadvertently moved into the track where you are working. Handbrakes can be set and chocks used to prevent the railcar or locomotive on which you are working from unexpectedly moving. When mounting or dismounting rail equipment, always face the equipment, and maintain at least three points of contact while climbing. Use built-in ladders and platforms—never stand or step on the railcar coupler. Use the ladders to climb all the way to the ground from a car; jumping from a car can result in serious injury.

Although these rules seem to be common sense, countless persons have lost their lives ignoring them while working on or around railroads. While responders tend to focus on the haz-mat risks involved in rail incidents, in the past four years, more firefighters have died in grade-crossing collisions when returning to the station after a call (2) than from rail haz-mat releases in the past 25 years (0).


Although fire departments may know every nook and cranny of the local chemical plant, high-rise building, or hospital, many departments fail to visit the rail yards or railroad tracks in their area, much less preplan for a rail incident. And, many railroad personnel are reluctant to invite the haz-mat team to the rail yard. In addition to being busy, the relationship between railroads and the fire service has been strained at times. Too often, the railroad official and the fire officer meet for the first time at the rail incident scene. Both want to get the incident “under control,” but this means different things to the persons involved. This early friction sets the tone for an incident and can lead to flawed decision making and strained relations.

Unlike the highway system, railroads often cannot detour traffic to a different route. Accidents, derailments, and haz-mat leaks/spills delay trains and often affect operations throughout the rail system. Just as bad weather at one airport may delay flights in other cities far away, the closure of a single main line or yard may cause backups and freight delays throughout the rail system. Moreover, delayed rail deliveries can severely affect customers, especially when it involves critical medical supplies, munitions in wartime, or essential raw materials for manufacturing. This is a constant concern for railroad personnel of which emergency responders may be unaware.

(3) Note the crossing number and milepost identifier. At this crossing, a lowboy tractor-trailer was hung up crossing the tracks. A witness called CSX quite excited because he could see down the line approximately two miles and that a train was approaching. The caller described the emergency location according to common local terminology, and it was difficult for the train dispatcher to pinpoint the exact location. Finally, the train was safely stopped. (Photo by Jerry Knapp).


Likewise, responders are concerned with public safety. If not contained, an incident’s effects may extend beyond railroad property and cause injury, death, and property damage. Preventing or mitigating this is the prime responsibility of emergency responders. However, many would-be incident commanders of rail incidents know more about sarin gas than the railroad in their hometown. On-scene at an incident is the wrong time and place to learn. Preplanning is the key to successful rail-incident management.

Preplanning starts with identifying and contacting the rail officials in your community. If there is a rail office or yard, simply drive over and introduce yourself. For many locations, the senior transportation officer or trainmaster is the one to contact. Request a meeting between your senior officers and rail personnel. The meeting’s length would depend on the size of the rail operations in your area. Below are some basic topics for discussion at preplanning meetings.

  • Location of rail terminals or rail yards in the response area. Most incidents occur in rail yards.
  • Rail yard access; are entrances marked or coded for responders?
  • Location of waterways near the yards, rail yard storm drains, and drainage routes.
  • Major rail bridges, trestles, and tunnels in the area, and how emergency vehicles can access them.
  • Environmentally sensitive areas near the railroad.
  • What railroads operate in the area and which lines they own.
  • Where do we report if we are called?
  • 24-hour emergency contact phone numbers for all railroads operating locally.

Bring along a detailed map of the area. Look for adjacent exposures such as pipelines or waterways. Identify grade crossings. If there are issues with normal rail operations, share your concerns with those present.

This meeting is just the beginning of preplanning. A thoroughly developed operations plan for rail-incident responses should include a complete list of the railroad’s highway grade crossings with associated milepost and DOT ID numbers, supplies needed to contain a diesel spill, and equipment for accessing large rail trestles and other structures.

Once the plan is complete and personnel have been trained, practice implementing it. Drills and exercises should always include rail personnel. It may be difficult to obtain tank cars for hands-on exercises, since more than 98 percent are owned by chemical shippers and leasing companies, not railroads. Rail personnel participation in your exercises provides real-world experience.

Training Assistance

Many Class 1 railroads offer training to fire departments and other response agencies through classroom sessions, videotapes, and rail tabletop exercises at little or no charge. Contact the railroad in your response area and find out what training is available and how to request information for your jurisdiction. Advanced training in rail response is available from a number of sources, particularly the Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado (, affiliated with the AAR. It has the most extensive collection of rail response training props available.

Although major rail incidents are rare, responders en route to even a minor incident should be aware of the rail operations hazards and how to protect themselves. Railroad and emergency response managers and fire officers should recognize each other on arrival on-scene because they should have met before the incident. Unified command that includes emergency response and railroad personnel working together should be set up quickly.


1. Railroads, the safe way to ship hazardous materials, Association of American Railroads, April 2004.


1. CSX Transportation Emergency Response Plan, 2004.

2. CSX Transportation Community Awareness Planning Guide, 2004.

JERRY KNAPP is a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York, and a 28-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology, is a former paramedic, and is the emergency management officer for the United States Military Academy at West Point.

MICHAEL LUNSFORD is director of hazardous-materials systems field services for CSX Transportation, responsible for tank car and train inspections, community/customer outreach, and employee/fire department training and emergency planning/response. He worked for 12 years as a safety professional in the chemical industry. Lunsford served as a firefighter and hazardous materials technician while attending Oklahoma State University, from which he graduated with a degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology. He is a certified safety professional, a certified hazardous materials manager, and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers

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