Train tragedy forces evaluation of Amtrak safety in Durham
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 20, 2013 02:09
If a train passing through Durham were to derail today, it could potentially take out the water supply, the electricity, the Fire Department and the SERCs in one blow.
Many students and visitors consider these very train tracks a staple to the UNH community; they give students the opportunity to travel with ease and provide tourists with a nice view as they lick their ice cream cones outside The Dairy Bar.
However, after the devastating train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Canada, which killed 47 people in the resulting explosion, the tracks – which were once just background for a bustling campus – are now the center of discussions of train safety in Durham.
In a meeting between Durham, UNH and Pan Am Railways officials on Aug. 29, the issue of train safety was discussed, as were ways to improve train safety on campus.
“I thought it was very good,” Captain James Brown of the UNH Fire Department said, in regards to the meeting with Pan Am Railways. “They were very open and honest … we got to see who the key players were.”
The incident in Canada this past July occurred when a train, carrying more than 70 tankers of crude oil from North Dakota, derailed while descending a hill.
Shipments like these are often referred to as “oil trains,” and are regularly transported through New Hampshire en route to New Brunswick, Canada.
According to Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig, 24 trains travel through Durham a day; 12 of these are passenger trains while the others are freight trains, some of which carry crude oil.
One of Selig’s main goals for the meeting in August was to discover exactly what kinds of shipments pass through Durham on a day-to-day basis.
“We wanted to have a better understanding of the kind of materials being transported,” Selig said.
In addition to Amtrak passenger trains, the tracks through the UNH campus transport many different kinds of cargo. Brown said the tracks transport “everything. … [They’re] like an over-the-road truck.”
Freight trains passing through Durham frequently carry crude oil, and have done so for many years. The difference today is that nearly every car in a freight train carrying crude oil contains a shipment; in the past, only one or two cars would carry the cargo.
Despite this revelation, oil shipments are not the town’s main concern. The tracks through campus occasionally transport volatile compounds, like acids or other substances used in manufacturing.
“It became more clear to us that oil, although a concern, is not necessarily the most concerning,” Selig said.
Even with this realization, UNH and Durham leaders are pleased with their current safety plans and foresee an even more stable future working with Pan Am.
“Safety is always our number one concern,” Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president for Pan Am Railways, said. She added that less than one percent of railroad accidents happen through derailment.
To ensure the continued safety of train travel, Pan Am Railways has safety features such as a zero tolerance policy for drug use or use of cellphones while operating trains. General service freight cars are also enhanced with equipment to prevent derailment.
In addition, the company prides itself on having extensive safety training programs for employees, which include constant inspections of people and tracks, as well as off-site classes offered to first responders. Pan Am will be offering one of these classes in the spring for UNH’s fire and police departments.
“It’s a good, close resource for us,” Brown said. “We’re pretty fortunate.”