So far, the smoldering of the Tennessee train wreck is a forgotten story, barely mentioned in the news. The source is likewise unremarkable and a little alarming.
Three seconds from a train crash in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday have already raised the specter of a toxic, radioactive cloud that shrouded the nation’s cities in soot and smog. The failure of the engine and a diesel locomotive after the train, carrying toxic chlorine gas, left the tracks is still being investigated.
Last year, a wagon bearing the same type of cylindrical tank canisters caught fire and was ignited by a car in a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight line in Texas. The tank was then burned by a gas-fired fire extinguisher.
All in all, the system, also known as convertible canisters, had been implicated in seven fires at U.S. railroads and six U.S. railroads, between 2010 and 2014, according to data tracked by The Associated Press. A handful of tank cars exploded after rail collisions, oil train derailments and strikes, but those fires mostly followed damage to trains by bad weather. The deadly derailment in Quebec City in 2013 of a crude-oil train that exploded into balls of flame led the Canadian government to ban the use of cars known as CPC-1232, the type that was involved in the fatal California derailment last year.
The NTSB has called for a review of the whole fleet of cars by 2030.
The system’s problem with accidental explosions over the years has gotten no mention in the news. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned in 2015 of a possible “epidemic” of vehicle fires ignited by electronic “knock-out” circuits built into the tanks, which haven’t been the focus of attention in the Tennessee incident.
The same commission warned that there may be improper equipment in cars carrying chemical and radioactive materials.
Meanwhile, the toxic chlorine gas has been identified as the potential cause of the fire at Union Pacific’s Norfolk Southern division yard.
The railroad company had recently begun an upgrade of the aging CSX locomotives in the area. The work involves constructing a protective wall that will double the number of turns available along the railroad’s most active tracks. The company is also negotiating with CSX to bring in their own locomotives.
To prepare for the works, the company recommended that CSX employees wear protection if they “are working, in the area, with or near the base of the tank.”
So far, there have been no confirmed cases of exposure to the CSX chemical. But because chlorine burns quickly and doesn’t evaporate like other dangerous materials, any inhalation can cause nausea, burning of the eyes and breathing problems. Exposure can also cause skin damage and possible kidney damage.
Once an accident occurs, CSX contractors will use cameras to inspect the cars for damage and will have sniffer dogs that can detect the chlorine.
CSX will also try to limit the number of points along its tracks where trains come into contact with the chemical.
A CSX spokesman, Steve Forsberg, confirmed the federal investigation would include a review of track conditions. The company will also submit preliminary damage assessments to the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, he said.
The NTSB has not yet determined the cause of the derailment.