Slower speeds and safer, sturdier rail cars are in the future for the rail cargo industry after a series of rule changes introduced by the United States Department of Transportation.The changes come after several explosive derailments of trains carrying crude oil through populated areas within the past few years. The government has asked rail companies to report to states if they transport a certain amount of crude oil through their state. East Texas shipments do not meet the reporting requirement, but other dangerous chemicals can still pass through East Texas cities. Major crude rail lines near East Texas include one near Interstate 45 and one near Shreveport.
Longview experienced this when a cargo train derailed in April 2015 carrying liquefied petroleum gas, forcing an evacuation of nearby homes.
"The fire marshal said it was an extreme emergency," evacuee Eddie Johnson said.
The chemical that had Johnson evacuating his Longview home is just one of many we spotted on East Texas railways. Using placards which are required to be posted on rail cars carrying hazardous materials, we found dozens of dangerous chemicals, including: ethyl, hexene, butyl acetate, propionaldehyde, butyldehyde, propanol, isobutyl aldehyde, ethyl acetate, isobutyl acetate, ethylene, butyraldehyde, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, fuel oil, propylene and acetic acid.
The rail carriers say 99 percent of rail cargo gets to its destination safely. But incidents over the past two years have those rail carriers in the spotlight. The derailment danger is something East Texas first responders keep in mind.
"We are aware there are multiple commodities going on the rails at all hours of the day and night," Longview Fire Marshal Johnny Zackary said.
LFD hosts one of two training schools in the country specializing in rail derailments.
"It [carrying cargo] is a very necessary part of what we do," Zackary said. "We demand these products and chemicals are required to manufacture."
"We are aware there are a multitude of hazards on the rail line at any given time," he said.
Several people evacuated the Longview derailment while the cars were cleaned up. For Eddie Johnson, it was a no-brainer to leave his home.
"Just do the math, you know," Johnson said. "When they suggest you get out... get out. There's no use in staying there. Get out and live to see another day."
The tanks, suggested by the government to be used for hazardous material transport, are what saved the Longview situation from being much worse.
"Obviously the newer tanks, the double-walled tanks, was a benefit to the product not escaping," Zackary said. "We've noticed with the construction they will take a pretty significant amount of damage. Fortunately, this last derailment, the cars did exactly what they were supposed to do -- they took the initial shock of the crash."
A shock that nearby residents will not soon forget.
"It's always gonna be stuck in the back of my mind," Johnson said.
The information that was required for carriers to submit to states about the amount of crude they are transporting will soon become confidential, meaning residents won't know what's rolling by their home without checking the placard for yourself.
Union Pacific, one of the major carriers through East Texas, released a statement regarding the transportation of hazardous materials and the derailment danger:
For Union Pacific, safety is our top priority. Our commitment to safety includes making sure our trains and their cargos arrive safely to their destinations, especially when those cargos include potentially hazardous materials. Union Pacific employs state of the art technology to inspect our rails and rail cars to find defects before they can cause accidents. We have also invested over $2.7 billion strengthening the transportation infrastructure in Texas since 2010, and plan to spend an additional $383 million in 2015. This private investment will enhance employee, community and customer safety by maintaining tracks, signal systems and bridges. These efforts have led to the decrease of derailments on our network by 38% over the last 10 years.
Though serious derailments and accidents are rare, Union Pacific is mindful that an incident can still happen. That is why we are committed to educating first responders in the communities we serve. Since 2010, we have trained over 3,000 first responders in the state of Texas.
BNSF Railways said they are a common carrier. The company said they have a multi-level risk reduction program to keep their rails safe. They phase the program with prevention, mitigation and response. Response includes their own group that can respond with a foam truck to assist firefighters in containing a spill. In all, the company has contributed $6 billion in infrastructure and improvements.
Carriers have a few years to become fully compliant to the rule by the USDOT for slower speeds and sturdier tanks.
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