What materials ride the rails in your neighborhood? - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

What materials ride the rails in your neighborhood?

Emergency officials want a better picture of what materials go on Alabama railroads. (Source: WAFF) Emergency officials want a better picture of what materials go on Alabama railroads. (Source: WAFF)

Trains: You see them, you hear them. But for most people, that's about all you know about them.

The tracks usually only make the news when there's an accident. More times than not, a serious accident is usually the result of human error. Still, have you ever wondered just how safe the tracks are?

The latest data available from the Bureau of Transportation is from 2011. In Alabama, 17 people died from train related accidents and more than 100 people were injured. In 2011 there were a total of 174 accidents and incidents combined. That includes those incidents where hazardous materials are involved. In 2011, there were 20 hazardous material incidents in Alabama, 12 in 2012.

"It's always on our radar,” said Morgan County Emergency Management Agency Director Eddie Hicks. “We look at the most potential ones and try to plan around that. We have a lot of chlorine that passes through the area, we have a lot of propane that passes through the area."

But Hicks says crude oil -- a highly flammable, dangerous material -- is coming though our state more and more.

According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. crude oil shipments by rail topped a record 3 billion gallons in the first quarter of 2014. The concern among the public is growing, especially after a string of fiery accidents involving the oil. That includes the accident in Pickens County, Alabama in 2013 as well as the deadly derailment in a Quebec town which killed nearly 50 people.

Hicks says trained Hazmat crews are stationed near the tracks just in case. But while training exercises are completed yearly, it's hard to prepare for everything -- especially if you don't know what is coming down the tracks.

Last month, U.S. transportation officials released specifics on oil-train routes and volumes to state officials. The idea is to help emergency responders better prepare for accidents.

We asked, "Do you think knowing that information would help you out?"

Hicks said, "Well yes it would, because we would then be able to look at the entire route and pick out, say for instance if the train passed right by a school and that was on the route, we would be able to put that in one of our priorities."

The data released is also meant to better inform folks near the tracks.

"People need to understand, if they live near a railroad track, there are some very dangerous things that travel up and down those rails every day," said Alabama EMA director Art Faulkner.

The problem is, some state governments are choosing not to hand out that information -- at least not yet. Right now, local Alabama emergency responders don't have access to it.

Faulkner says they're in talks right now with both the railroads and governor's office to weigh the benefits and risks. He says while it may allow folks to be more prepared, in the wrong hands it could be dangerous.

"That information could end up causing the public more harm then it could if it's not released to everyone," said Faulkner.

Faulkner says in the next two months they'll make a decision on what is released to the public and how much they can hold back, legally. He expects all emergency responders to have access to the information by the end of the year. For now, he asks for the public's trust and reminds folks of constant hazmat training all local responders take part in.

In Decatur, crews had a close call back in November.

"Everyone came in,” said Hicks. “They immediately knew what to do."

Rail cars filled with a dangerous chemical sat on the tracks for hours while bomb squads worked to investigate a suspicious package. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm.

Other good news, in Alabama hazardous materials are not what the majority of those trains in your town are carrying. According to the Alabama Department of Transportation, coal is the most transported material with more than 70 million tons travelling down our tracks. There are only about 32 million tons of "chemicals" carried in and out of the state.

Still, it takes just one train and one derailment to equal one major disaster.

Copyright 2014 WAFF. All rights reserved.
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