Freight train

Witnesses described the 2020 derailment over Tempe Town Lake as a “scene from hell.” (Tribune file photo)

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that caused a dangerous hazardous material spill has raised concerns across the country about rail infrastructure and the response to these environmental emergencies. 

While no similar emergency has occurred in the Valley, a task force of first responders with regular training and continuing education is ready to confront one as state agencies monitoring the rail system, officials say.

State jurisdiction over public rail and highway crossings falls to the Arizona Corporation Commission’s Office of Railroad Safety.

It investigates accidents/incidents and complaints, including train derailments, train/auto collisions, any railroad incident involving a release of hazardous material, and train-to-train collisions.

A commission spokesman said the safety division “is always monitoring rail within the state” through annual inspections of more than 3,000 miles of track and unannounced “worker protection” drop-ins. 

Before he served on Mesa City Council for District 6, Scott Somers spent 27 years with the Phoenix Fire Department and remembers some of the incidents involving trains and HAZMAT situations in the Valley – including the train derailment and subsequent fire on the bridge over Tempe Town Lake in July 2020.

He called the Tempe wreck “the largest risk” to the community, primarily because it was a flammable chemical leak and was close to the city’s downtown.

“From a Valley perspective, we are extremely well prepared to handle any type of hazardous materials leak, whether it’s by rail or industry or on the road – and I’ve had far more over-the-road incidents,” Somers said.

Union Pacific Railroad runs the Sunset Route, a 760-mile corridor between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, with 691 miles between Yuma and San Simon.

Although Tucson is Union Pacific’s principal terminal in Arizona, it also maintains rail lines and facilities in the Phoenix area, as businesses and industries grow or relocate to the area.

Running across the Valley from Queen Creek to Buckeye and crisscrossing the East Valley, Union Pacific Railroad carries goods to and from the Valley – everything from metallic minerals, sulfur, lumber and building materials, and grains such as wheat and flour.

From 2017 to 2021, the company saw a 13% increase in rail cars originated in Arizona, briefly dipping in 2019 but quickly rebounding by 2021, according to a press release, and during that same time period, the company spent $301 million on Arizona tracks, structures and facilities.

Robynn Tysver, spokeswoman for Union Pacific Railroad, said the company has a heap of technology to monitor its rail cars and tracks including GPS, specialized sensors and, in some areas, Positive Train Control.

That advanced system is designed to automatically stop a train before certain incidents occur, such as train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by excessive speed or movement through misaligned track switches.

“This commitment to providing a safe and efficient network allows Union Pacific to be a valuable resource in attracting new business and industry,” Tysver said.

Launched in 2014, the AskRail app is a collaborative effort among the emergency response community and all North American Class I railroads that provides more than 25,000 first responders from across the country with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what types of hazardous materials a railcar carries so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency.

The app uses a simple railcar ID search to see whether a railcar on a train is carrying hazardous materials. 

From there a user can view the contents of the entire train and emergency contact information for all Class I railroads, Amtrak, and available short lines.

For security reasons, only qualified emergency responders with rail emergency training sponsored by one of the Class I freight railroads or at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Colorado, can download and use the restricted features in the AskRail app.

In addition, railroads can offer the app to known emergency responders along their routes.

Tysver said they’re required by federal law to transport chemicals and other hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil and chlorine.

“Union Pacific shares the same goals as our customers and the communities we serve – to deliver every tank car safely,” Tysver said. “It is important to remember that 99.9 % of all hazardous material shipments by rail reach their destination safely.”

“Our HAZMAT teams perform about 5,000 tank car inspections annually, auditing everything from tank car fittings and car markings to safety appliances,” Tysvers said. “They also work alongside our contractors, our customers, and government regulators to inspect, report and remedy findings.”

Like other railroad companies, Union Pacific holds annual drills to ensure the efficacy of their emergency response plans remain effective and are followed by all employees, along with working with community emergency response teams to implement and share best practices and jointly educate our team members.

From Feb. 27 to March 3, Special Ops Captain Mike Thomas attended one of those annual trainings at the Gilbert Public Safety Training Center. It included both classroom education and hands-on training on some of training equipment provided by Union Pacific. 

On March 6, another training block started at Papago Park with the National Guard hazmat unit, that includes education and training on natural gas leaks, radiation emergencies and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents. 

“One of the biggest things for me, and my position as a program manager for HAZMAT is having those collaborative relationships and stuff with Union Pacific,” Thomas said.

If an incident occurs and Thomas arrives first on scene, he said he can quickly call a Union Pacific program manager to update the Mesa Fire and Medical and provide information it needs to address the emergency. 

“But he’ll already probably know of the problem because that engineer is going to go ahead and throw a mayday …and indicate that he’s got a problem,” Thomas said. 

Whether it’s the regional preparedness training with multiple agencies across the Valley, or a large-scale incident review of past incidents, such as the Tempe Town Lake derailment, Thomas said the department continuously leverages those collaborative relationships to have the best outcome for when responding to incidents. 

“Because it’s not just going to be the Mesa Fire Department showing up for a railcar incident, you know, or white powder call or a natural gas leak,” Thomas said. “It’s a combined effort, regionally.”

For more information...

Union Pacific Railroad

AZ Corporation Commission Office of Railroad Safety

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