Trains often carry hazardous materials through Champaign County, but public kept in dark because of security concerns

You are currently viewing Trains often carry hazardous materials through Champaign County, but public kept in dark because of security concernsJ. Sidney Malone
An employee delivers orders at the Neil Street Culver's that stands less than 15 yards from railroad tracks carrying hazardous material. Beyond the tracks is the Illinois Fire Service Institute, which trains to handle hazardous material incidents.

A train passes through Champaign County every fifteen minutes, many of which carry flammable, corrosive and hazardous materials. 

The recent disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, is a stark reminder that the trains passing through communities like Champaign are packed with dangerous cargo.

But county and city emergency managers refuse to release information to the public that they get from rail companies, including some historic info.

“Disclosure of [the cargo reports] would not only be unlawful, it would be exceedingly dangerous to have out in the community where it could fall into the hands of bad actors,” John M. Dwyer of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by CU-CitizenAccess.

But a spot check by CU-CitizenAccess finds that among the most common freight are corrosive materials like phosphoric and hydrochloric acid and flammable liquids like fuel and oil. This information was gathered by observing hazardous material placards displayed on the cars of a random sample of trains moving up and down the Canadian National Railway line that bifurcates Champaign County.

Google Earth view of the Canadian National (red) and Norfolk Southern (green) railways in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Placards are easy to spot because the trains pass through many crossings and as close to 40 feet to businesses along the rail line. For example, fans of observing and taking videos of trains suggest the Culver’s restaurant on Neil Street in Champaign as an excellent location to watch the trains.

Local parenting blog Chambana Moms suggests visiting if “your little one love[s] to watch the trains go by,” with readers saying, “it’s fun to sit rail side and have a treat,” and suggesting sitting on the east side of the restaurant facing the tracks. 

These placards must be displayed on all ground freight – rail or road – and give two clues to a car’s contents. 

The first is a broad category called a “hazardous material class,” numbered from 1 to 9, corresponding to descriptions like “8: corrosive,” “3: flammable liquids,” and “9: miscellaneous.” These broad categories are divided by a specific four-digit number that provides a smaller variety of materials like “3295: hydrocarbons” or “1202: fuel oil.” 

If this coded signage seems opaque, that’s because it’s meant to be. The placards help first responders like firefighters and hazardous material (HazMat) teams know what tools to use and what tools to avoid in order to put out fires or secure the area around a potential accident. These emergency officials use code books and are trained to handle these substances.

But beyond the broad categories, there’s no way for ordinary people to know precisely what those cars contain. Champaign County emergency managers know what’s on them, but they won’t say.

Dwyer said that information is provided to emergency managers in confidence for security reasons.

“Since these commodity flow studies provide detailed information regarding hazardous materials traveling by rail, the disclosure could reasonably be expected to expose the vulnerability or jeopardize the effectiveness of security measures, policies, and plans, and the safety of the personnel who implement them and the public,” Dwyer said in the denial letter.

Neither of the major rail operators in Champaign, Canadian National Railway (CN) and Norfolk Southern Railway (NS), disclose the specific contents of their trains to the public. But Canadian National provides county officials with reports detailing what types, how many cars, and how often hazardous materials are transported. 

Brian Ball, the hazardous materials officer at the Champaign Fire Department, says those reports are given confidentially. 

The county’s denial letter said the request was denied for two reasons: the records were sensitive security information and the rail companies confidentially provided the documents to county emergency managers.

The risk of exposure to dangerous materials in the event of an accident is even more significant, considering that the railway passes near schools, parks and businesses.

The railroad tracks are about 40 feet from the back end of Culver’s on Neil Street in Champaign, a commonly suggested location for trainspotters.

The railway that passes by Culver’s in Champaign is owned by Canadian National Railway and covers about 10 miles north to south and passes through residential areas, downtown areas and commercial lots. Norfolk Southern also operates railways within Champaign city limits, transporting hazardous materials through these densely populated areas.

In 2016, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission published a report on the hazardous materials traveling through Champaign by rail, road and pipeline. The report found that flammable liquids, gases and corrosive materials were the most common dangerous material that made their way past spots like Culver’s.

The report revealed many hazardous material incidents over the past few decades, averaging around three incidents monthly. Most of those accidents, however, involved truck traffic on the three major interstate highways that converge in Champaign. 

General locations of Hazmat incidents in Champaign County from 1990-2011. Source: Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

From 2004 to 2014, however, the report notes that rail accidents in Champaign County happened more than twice a year on average, with Canadian National reporting 17, the vast majority. 58% of those accidents involved hazardous material. 

Notably, Norfolk Southern, which has been making headlines for its role in the East Palestine disaster, had only four accidents in the same period, none of which involved hazardous material.

Source: Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

Norfolk Southern and Canadian National Railways assure residents that the trains are operated safely and that the companies have contingency plans in case of an accident. Still, the potential dangers of transporting hazardous materials through neighborhoods leave the Champaign community accepting the risk of an accident. 

Source: Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

Champaign Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Officer Brian Ball said the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) receives monthly notifications about the estimated number of High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFT) passing through the county in the upcoming month. The information does not specify what exactly is being shipped or disclose a timeline for security reasons.

But Ball said the fire department has access to an app designed for emergency responders that tells them what is in a rail tank car or if it’s empty. Advanced users can also see the whole train manifest from their devices. 

County emergency managers can request commodity flow studies for each railroad in their jurisdiction, which tells the fire department how many carloads of specific products were shipped through their authority during the previous year. This information is shared with the department’s hazardous materials team so they can conduct training, pre-planning and tabletop exercises involving those products.

Ball said that successfully mitigating any severe incident begins with establishing relationships beforehand. Specifically, the Champaign Fire Department has a strong relationship with the Dangerous Goods Team from Canadian National Railroad, which routinely offers basic rail response training to the department and its mutual aid partners in the county. The team will also loan training props whenever requested. 

The entire corporate Dangerous Goods Team has converged at the I Hotel for tabletop training designed around a simulated derailment in Champaign city limits. Because of the exercise, Ball said, they knew what information was needed to mitigate the incident rapidly. 

These relationships were tested with the derailment of a CN train in May of 2021 outside Pesotum, on the same track that runs by Culver’s, just ten miles south.  Ball says, thankfully, the situation was quickly resolved.

A satellite view of the 2021 derailment location outside Pesotum, Illinois.
A closer satellite view of the 2021 derailment scene location outside Pesotum, Illinois.

The 2021 derailment outside Pesotum involved no hazardous material. The hazardous material team was present as a precaution. Ed Moody of the Champaign County Sheriff’s Department told the News-Gazette shortly after the derailment that the material of concern on the train was flour.

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  1. dan

    Computer vision is to the point where anyone living along the tracks could aim a webcam at it and automatically log train times, length, hazard placards and carriage serial numbers. It’s not secret info since it’s traveling in plain sight though our community and the info would be interesting if not useful for folks beyond emergency managers.