Area first responders board training train, get hands-on instruction on hazardous railroad accidents

Oct 6, 2021

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Jeff DeGraff stands on the company's safety training train, which visited the Elkhart rail yard from Oct. 6 to 8.
Credit Jakob Lazzaro / WVPE

Michiana firefighters and EMS workers are getting some hands-on training on handling railroad accidents involving hazardous materials this week after Norfolk Southern’s training train made a stop in the company’s Elkhart yard on Tuesday.

The Elkhart facility is the company’s largest rail sorting yard in the United States. Media spokesperson Jeff DeGraff said it sees thousands of rail cars per day, carrying everything from cars to crude oil.

“Just about everything you see out there can be shipped on rail and is shipped on rail,” DeGraff said. “We have a couple thousand cars coming in and out every day, that will come in on a train, get sorted out and head out on a different train.”

And for three days this week, the yard is also hosting a special safety training train as part of Norfolk Southern’s Operation Awareness and Response program. It’s offering free classes for area first responders on how to safely handle railway accidents with hazardous materials.

DeGraff said those incidents are rare.

“With freight railroad, hazardous materials arrive safely and securely at its destination 99.97 percent of the time,” DeGraff said. “That is practically flawless, so what we’re doing here is we’re training for that .03 percent.”

But accidents can happen — infamously in 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in a small Quebec town, caught fire and exploded, destroying 30 buildings and killing 47 people.

DeGraff said this training is to make sure area first responders are prepared for the worst — and to help area residents feel safe and secure about the trains rolling by.

“We need to make sure we’re ready,” he said. “But hopefully, a lot of these guys will never have to use what they’re learning today.”

The train has two converted boxcar classrooms, one locomotive and four example tanker cars. It also has two platform cars with nine example tanker valves complete with a pressurized water and air system that can demonstrate leaks so attendees can get some hands-on practice.

“The benefit is being present and in front of these pieces of equipment,” DeGraff said. “They need to know what is inside the tanker car. They need to know how that car is put together, so if there’s a breach or a spill or something like that, they know how to respond quickly.” 

The materials are also available online for refresher courses.

DeGraff said there’s been a “great response” from eight local agencies including the Elkhart, South Bend and Goshen Fire Departments. The railroad will be training 150 to 200 first responders over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week. 

William Kornrumph is the division chief of training for the Elkhart Fire Department. He said it’s a unique opportunity for hands-on instruction.

“This is something that we don’t get to do, actually, at all,” Kornrumph said. “We all go through HAZMAT as part of our state requirements having to do with trains, but we never really get to do any hands on or actually see them up close.”

And thanks to the training, he says they’ll be prepared if an unlikely railway incident occurs.

As for members of the public, DeGraff said you are much more likely to be hit by a train in a railroad crossing than witness a major derailment or safety incident and urged people to have caution at crossings.

“It is never worth the risk to try and beat the train,” DeGraff said.

The safety training train’s next stop? Louisville, Kentucky. 

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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