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Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Norfolk Southern’s safety train rolls in to educate first responders on rail incidents

Norfolk Southern 5642 poses outside the Juniata Paint Shop in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The EMD GP38-2 has been painted into a scheme similar to SD60E number 9-1-1, but will be assigned to the "Safety Train" which travels the NS system to provide training to first reponders for rail-related incidents.

More than 100 first responders in Chattanooga, Tennessee will board Norfolk Southern Corp.’s safety train this week, a state-of-the-art mobile classroom that prepares emergency workers to respond to potential rail incidents involving the shipment of hazardous materials.

The train is visiting 18 cities this year during its tour along routes where Norfolk Southern has significant shipments of hazardous materials. The company operates about 20,000 miles of rail and is a major transporter of coal, automotive and industrial products.

“Unfortunately in the industry, we do have accidents,” Robert Wood, Norfolk Southern’s assistant system manager – hazardous materials, said. “We have had about four derailments this year and we have had some releases of hazardous materials,” he told Homeland Preparedness News.

“Thankfully, the number of shipments is going up and the number of incidences are actually going down.”

In March, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in western New York, causing an ethanol leak, resulting in the precautionary evacuation of nearby homes. The State Police, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services’ Offices of Emergency Management and Fire Prevention and Control were among the first responders at the scene.

The safety train is part of Norfolk Southern’s Operation Awareness & Response program, launched last year to strengthen relationships with local first responders by providing classroom, web-based and field training on hazardous materials transportation and rail operations.

The safety train consists of a 273-ton locomotive, two boxcars converted into classrooms, four styles of chemical transporting tank cars that illustrate various valves and fittings, and two flat cars designed to transport intermodal containers.

Between train instruction and other courses, Norfolk Southern educates some 5,000 local emergency responders annually on emergency response throughout its operating territory. The company also developed a mobile app called AskRail, which provides real time rail information to first responders.

Although police, fire and other types of first responders are well versed in highway accidents, rail incidents present unique challenges.

“The vast majority of that rail is through very isolated, rural areas, so access is an issue; plus the sheer volume of the products that we haul far exceeds anything that you run across on a highway,” Wood said.

First responders are taught how to identify the various types of containers that may have been breached in an accident. For example, they learn how to spot the difference between general service cars that haul liquid products and high-pressure tank cars that ship liquefied compressed natural gas.

“The biggest part is that we’re teaching them recognition first, so that you have all the information necessary before you commit any personnel,” Wood said. “It protects them and gives them the information to protect their community and to protect the environment,” he added.