History of the Safety Train
The Safety Train program developed when we realized that most emergency responders in the country were not trained to handle an incident involving railroad tank cars. Often in our local freight yards there are railroad tank cars filled with thousands of gallons of propane or chemicals with names that most people cannot even pronounce. Even though the “Safest” mode of transportation for hazardous materials is by rail, incidents do happen. The incident may involve tank cars derailed at a major derailment or just some unknown product with a strange odor leaking on a rail siding. One railroad tank car may carry as much as four trailer truckloads of hazardous materials. The first minutes at any scene, whether it’s a house fire or rail incident, are often the most important. An incorrect assessment early on could ultimately cost an emergency responder’s life. In most cases our local departments are inadequately prepared for a hazardous material disaster and the equipment is not available to train them.
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Our involvement with this training effort started in the summer of 1994, when we organized a training exercise in Sherborn, Massachusetts, where two hundred firefighters from a dozen towns participated in what was known as “Sherborn’s Great Train Wreck”. The scene was a simulated Conrail train derailment, where a tank car was leaking a hazardous material. Smoke machines simulated the fire and water leaking from the bottom of a tank car was the hazardous material. It all looked so real except that the only tank cars available were used to transport corn oil and they came with ears of corn painted on their sides. The types of tank cars used to transport propane, chlorine and other hazardous materials were not available due to the obvious dangers of training on contaminated cars. The real benefits of this elaborate exercise were not achieved. The emergency responders never learned how to identify different types of tank cars, their markings and their mechanical workings.
It wasn’t long after that elaborate exercise that plans were formulated to construct a stationary training ground, where emergency responders could go and learn about different types of tank cars and other rail equipment. It wasn’t long after our first two tank cars arrived at our training ground, that Conrail found itself in a predicament when it tried to organize a training exercise in West Springfield, Massachusetts and again the problem of clean tank cars arose. Conrail’s Hazardous Material Department borrowed our cars and soon the idea of a traveling “Safety Train” was born.