Champaign County rail systems see frequent transport of hazardous materials

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A freight train pictured on the City of Champaign's "Choose Champaign" web page.

Approximately 107 trains, often carrying hazardous materials, pass through Champaign County’s 225 miles of active rail lines each day. Freight traffic accounts for about 101 of these trains. 

These freighters transport a variety of materials and goods, including various hazardous materials. The trains carrying at least 20 rail cars of flammable liquids are known as High Hazard Flammable Trains, usually carrying diesel fuel or crude oil. 

Fire Lieutenant Brian Ball, hazardous materials officer at the Champaign County Fire Department, is not concerned about these trains.

“ …despite the large quantities [of hazardous materials], the known materials don’t concern me as we are afforded the opportunity to pre-plan and train for incidents involving those materials,” said Lt. Ball, in an email. 

The Champaign Fire Department has access to large quantities of firefighting foam to suppress accidents and fires involving highly flammable materials and their vapors. Ball said he feels most comfortable dealing with flammables, especially those that are actively burning.

“It [actively burning flammables] puts most firefighters, especially those who aren’t Haz-Mat Technicians, in a more relatable situation as a firefighter,” said Ball, “If the product is burning, then we know exactly where it is and don’t have to worry about vapors suddenly finding an ignition source that could result in an explosion.” 

Ball’s greater concern is the random materials that pass through the county on road or rail that the fire department is not aware of, and could present special hazards or challenges to mitigate. 

“With three Class 1 railroads and three interstate highways passing through Champaign County, I am sure that some chemical or hazardous substance travels through each week that we have never heard of,” said Ball. 

The Surface Transportation Board, a federal economic regulator of surface transportation, defines a Class 1 railroad as having annual carrier operating revenues of $447,621,226 or more. The railways that go through Champaign County are owned by three different companies, all of which are Class 1 railroads: Canadian National-Illinois Central (CN), Norfolk-Southern, and Union Pacific. Canadian National Railroad Company owns the longest length of rail lines in the County, followed by Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. 

The Champaign County Emergency Management Agency and the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission have conducted commodity flow studies on the transportation of hazardous materials for both the Norfolk Southern and Canadian National Railroads. The studies involved observing railcars marked with hazmat placards and taking note of how many cars passed through, and what they were carrying. 

Each placard is mandated and assigned by the federal government.

“If it’s not marked it doesn’t move,” said John Dwyer, coordinator of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.

Every hazardous material is assigned to one of nine hazard classes as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The classes are as follows: 

  • Class 1: Explosives
  • Class 2: Gases
  • Class 3: Flammable Liquids
  • Class 4: Flammable Solids
  • Class 5: Oxidizers and Organic Peroxides
  • Class 6: Toxic Materials and Infectious Substances
  • Class 7: Radioactive Materials
  • Class 8: Corrosive Materials
  • Class 9: Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods

According to the most recent study conducted on the Canadian National Railway and the Norfolk Southern Railway in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the percentage of railcars carrying each class of hazardous materials is as follows:

Hazmat ClassCanadian NationalNorfolk Southern
Class 10%0%
Class 215.2%13.8%
Class 345.6%47.1%
Class 40.9%1.2%
Class 55.4%5.3%
Class 61%0.9%
Class 70%0%
Class 817.9%18.2%
Class 914%13.5%

The table shows, in both studies, the majority of the railcars carrying hazardous materials were of hazmat Class 3: Flammable Liquids, followed by hazmat Class 8: Corrosive Materials, and hazmat Class 2: Gases and hazmat Class 9: Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods. 

The Canadian National Railroad communicates to county emergency management when these High Hazard Flammable Materials trains are going to pass through.

Dwyer says that the exact number of these trains that pass through the county per month is hard to estimate.

“Flammable liquids, flammable gases, and HHFTs come through the county sporadically,” said Dwyer. “We then send that information over to the fire department.”

Although these railcars have been marked with hazmat placards, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are constantly full of hazardous materials. 

“It may be labeled [hazmat] but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that container is full either,” said Dwyer, “It could mean that they’ve emptied it but they still have to mark it hazmat if there’s any residual material in there.”

Railways are not the only way hazardous materials are transported throughout the county. Trucks and pipelines are also utilized for hazmat transportation. 

“We see significant quantities of flammable/combustible liquids, corrosive, and some radioactive materials pass through our county everyday on road and rail,” wrote Ball. 

Champaign County’s roadway network is comprised of three interstate highways and several other major U.S. and state routes. Commercial truck traffic volumes on interstate highways approximate about 20% to 30% of daily traffic volumes, and U.S. and state routes make up about 4% to 9%. 

A commodity flow study conducted by the regional planning commission in 2015 found that trucks carrying hazardous materials through Champaign County on interstate highways predominantly transported hazard Class 3: Flammable Liquids at 39%, followed by hazard Class 8: Corrosive Materials at 19.5% , and hazard Class 9: Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods at 18%. Observations from the U.S. and state routes within the county presented similar results. 

The hazardous materials transported through pipelines are predominantly used for energy generation. Hazardous materials most commonly transported through these pipelines include crude oil, natural gas and liquefied natural gases. 

According to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, there have been 195 hazardous materials incident reports filed since 2010, with the majority of them being spills or leaks on local roads and streets, as well as some interstate highways. 

Champaign County has an emergency preparedness plan for any hazardous materials incidents. 

The preparedness plan as well as more information on any hazardous materials incidents can be found on the IEMA website

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