Preparing for Toxic Cargo: Emergency Preparedness for Train Accidents and Toxic Spills

Emergency-response authorities and survivors of deadly train accidents say more public education is essential. And some railroad employees think they could use more training.

Catastrophic fires in the San Bernardino Mountains two years ago show the importance of readiness.

Residents were prepared to evacuate when the fires raced toward their homes because groups such as Mountain Area Safety Task Force, a group that held public meetings and mailed educational materials, had helped prepare the public.

A similar effort would dramatically increase public awareness and safety along the rails, authorities said. "It's something that needs to be addressed," said Gail Beckham, hazardous materials coordinator for San Bernardino County.

More than 1.5 million people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties live within a mile of railroad tracks.


Many potential solutions to the risk from trains carrying hazardous cargo are costly, to either the railroads or local governments.

San Bernardino's homeland security director, police Lt. Don Soderbloom, proposed creating an automated emergency calling system, which can notify residents in any area of the city of a disaster and the measures they should take.

The idea initially drew support. But the proposal ultimately was rejected because it was deemed too costly, Soderbloom said.

Michael Eckley, San Bernardino's public systems manager, said start-up costs for about 20 phone lines were estimated in the $50,000 range, but many more lines would be needed in the city of almost 200,000. Maintaining the system and updating phone numbers also would be a significant expense, he said.

Soderbloom said he plans to resubmit the proposal soon.

San Bernardino County has set up a telephone emergency notification system to inform mountain and foothill residents of floods, fires or other natural disasters, San Bernardino County Fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said. But the system is not equipped to handle a derailment or chemical spill in lowland areas. Martinez said the county has plans to expand the system throughout all county areas early next year.

Riverside County does not have an automated phone messaging system in place for disasters. Greg Stoddard, the county's chief technology officer, said the county has issued a request seeking proposals from vendors of such systems.

Riverside's city police and fire departments have a calling system to contact homes and businesses in the event of a chemical release or other emergency, said Carmen Nieves, city emergency coordinator.


After a train derailed in San Bernardino in April, investigators blamed faulty track inspections and erroneous cargo lists for causing the accident and complicating the emergency response.

Railroad employees have differing views about whether they are adequately trained to deal with hazardous materials.

Most workers are not, according to Ray Enriquez, a Union Pacific engineer who teaches safety courses to other employees.

"We have people who have worked here for 30 years, and they start wondering what they are carrying," said Enriquez, a 13-year railroad veteran and a union official. After they take the course, he said, "they are glad they have the knowledge, but they're also scared of what they have learned."

If hazardous materials are released, train crews grab the listing of train car contents, evacuate and alert the railroad of the accident location. Train crews are responsible for getting the cargo list to first responders but are not trained to diagnose what has spilled or what should be done about it.

"I run the other way," said Aaron Sawyer, a conductor from Palmdale. "I don't get paid enough for that."

More training would help crews better understand the cargo lists and work with fire departments, Enriquez said.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the company is satisfied employees have enough training.

Scott Mitre, a Union Pacific conductor who grew up in Fontana, said he is comfortable with the level of safety regulation at his job, which he took about 18 months ago. He said it could be safer, but railroads have to balance that goal with costs.

"The more rules and regulations put on any company to handle any material, the cost goes up and the consumer pays more. There's a fine line there," Mitre said. "The public has a lot of say-so in terms of what they will accept."


Some public institutions in the Inland area already plan for a dangerous rail accident.

Dr. Dev Gnanadev, medical director at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, said officials recognize the potential for a train derailment along nearby tracks or at the Colton switching yard.

If evacuation is impossible, the hospital could close off all exits, openings and airflow from outside within minutes. An internal ventilation service would distribute safe air throughout the building, but there could be no incoming ambulances or patients, Gnanadev said.

The hospital has its own hazardous materials team, which would erect decontamination tents in the event that many people are exposed to a hazardous chemical, he said.

Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Colton, surrounded on three sides by railroad tracks, has had BNSF officials on campus to give train safety lessons.

In a hazardous materials accident, children would be locked in until they received other instructions, Principal Adrienne Bodhaine said.

Hawthorne Elementary School in Riverside, just 40 yards from a major railroad line, is being relocated because of rail noise, pollution and fear of a derailment.

The Riverside Unified School District, citing the conditions at the school, successfully sought state funding usually reserved for schools that must be abandoned because of serious structural problems.

Most emergency planning does not involve the general public, however.

One Inland lawmaker has introduced legislation that would require railroads to fund derailment evacuation plans, training and drills in communities near busy rail lines.

"The railroads have enough profit to pay for all the trouble they put people through," said Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona.

Riverside fire Capt. Philip Holder and other emergency responders said a public information campaign, whether by meeting or mass mailing, would help in any disaster.

"People need to be self-sufficient," Holder said.


Trucks and train cars carrying hazardous materials are required to carry warning placards that help emergency responders identify the chemicals in the event of a spill.

Here are three examples:

INHALATION HAZARD: Chlorine, phosgene, others. Chemicals can form gases that make breathing hazardous.

NON-FLAMMABLE GAS: Anhydrous ammonia, nitrogen, helium and other chemicals. Containers can explode. Gases do not ignite, but some are health hazards.

FLAMMABLE GAS: Hydrogen, propane, propylene and other gases that can ignite when exposed to heat or flame.