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Why Emergency Response Plans Should Include the Railroad

One of the most important factors is understanding the railroad milepost address system that’s used by all railroads to identify geographic locations.

by John Cease / June 22, 2011
Photo courtesy of Mark Wolfe/FEMA Mark Wolfe/FEMA

Railroads shouldn’t be mysterious entities in an emergency, yet local emergency response plans often don’t cover them to a necessary extent. The railroad poses all the threats and liabilities of a major highway system, with one exception: A rail disaster is usually monumental and frequently becomes a multijurisdictional event.

Railroads are pioneering the transportation sector with intermodal, improved track conditions; computerization; fuel efficiency; employee optimization; and mergers. Yet railroads remain, next to domestic airlines, the safest form of transportation. Rail accidents for 2010 totaled 1,830, which included 261 highway grade crossing fatalities, 451 trespass fatalities, 20 rail employee fatalities and 4,272 nonfatal employee injuries, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) 2010 safety results.

Unlike other transportation systems, railroads are private and not dependent on the government. However, emergency pre-planning for a large-scale rail event is critical, especially as railroads become the most profitable and efficient form of U.S. freight transportation.  

Increased fuel costs and initiatives to be more environmentally friendly have translated into more trains, increased speeds and additional freight and passenger traffic. Industry experts predict that volume will double by 2035. High-speed rail initiatives and increasing passenger loads will result in more railroad emergencies, which emphasizes the need for better local government emergency planning — increases in hazardous material (HAZMAT) transportation and passenger counts are not just homeland security concerns.

A comprehensive plan should address the following: Quickly determining the precise location, identifying the best access and staging areas, multijurisdictional coordination, potential for mass causalities and, if necessary, evacuation of rail passengers. Consideration must be given to a HAZMAT factor that may result in releases or spills. Emergency management should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. To ignore the railroad in your emergency plans would be like ignoring a major interstate highway or airport in your jurisdiction.

Understanding railroad basics can significantly enhance emergency responses. Here are specific questions emergency management needs to address when forming a rail emergency response plan:
•    Does the plan identify each separate railroad in the response area?
•    Does the plan include accurate emergency contact information for each railroad?
•    Does the plan incorporate railroad milepost locations on response maps?  
•    Is the plan reviewed, verified and updated for continued changes?

In an emergency situation, quick decisions must be made regarding where, what and which types of public-sector resources are needed. One of the most important factors is understanding the railroad milepost address system that’s used by all railroads to identify geographic locations. Like the street addresses in 911 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) or other map systems, the milepost address will be used by the railroad and needs to be integrated into local emergency planning because it’s the only reference used by railroaders when noting a location on a rail line.

Failure to incorporate railroad mileposts into emergency plans could slow a meaningful response or cause an incident to expand exponentially.  

Consider an emergency reporting scenario:

Railroad engineer to dispatcher: “This is W43. Our train went into emergency. We are on the ground at about Milepost 243. We have HAZMAT cars 10 in from the rear. Advise 911.
I can see a plume of smoke from here.”

Railroad dispatcher to 911 center: “I have a train derailment with a possible HAZMAT problem at Milepost 243. We probably need a fire and police response.”

911 center to railroad: “Where is Milepost 243? Can you advise the nearest highway intersection? What county are they in? Can they move to the train to the nearest crossing?”

This is the beginning of a long and tense emergency management disconnect, in which failure to incorporate mileposts into the emergency plan slowed response time. In an emergency situation, quick decisions must be made on where, what and which types of public-sector resources are needed. As an emergency manager, you can ask a number of questions to enhance the public safety’s response capability:

Where is Milepost 243 in relation to a highway map? Where can access be found to the right of way? Where can equipment be staged? What resources does the railroad have? How can you direct other jurisdictions to the milepost location?  

Understanding how railroads are organized and operate is also critical to an emergency manager’s portfolio of plans in order to interpret and act quickly on a railroad report to 911. This information is rarely integrated on any 911 maps.

Perhaps most critical to that plan is an understanding of how railroads are addressed and operated. Railroads have a mile marker system line address similar to that found on interstates and major highways. Railroads similarly call them the milepost.

The milepost (MP) addresses are set at approximately one-mile intervals along a designated line with an MP 0 starting point. As the train moves away from MP 0, the milepost addresses increase sequentially. The distance between mileposts often varies because of rail line acquisitions or relocations, but this is not a problem because each milepost represents an unchanging specific geographic location on the line.  

Switches, signals, sidings, bridges, tunnels, stations, highway grade crossings and other railroad infrastructure called “waypoints” between mileposts are assigned a milepost address. The milepost address is usually carried out to the hundredth of a mile. For example, a highway grade crossing may have a railroad MP address of 251.67. That indicates that the crossing is 251.67 miles from MP 0 on that specific line. Switches and/or signals that are remotely controlled from a control station are known as controlled points with names like CP MAX or CP 144.

Since railroads have multiple lines and branches, they usually have a “pre-line” alpha designator, ranging from one to three letters, such as A. For example, on the CSX Railroad, MP A 68.71 is a grade crossing in rural Skippers, Va., on the A line, 68.71 miles south of Richmond, Va. When a railroad reports an event to a 911 call center, it will refer to the MP address. It is precise to them but is rarely integrated on 911 maps.

Public grade crossings have a street name or highway number. In addition, every public and private “at-grade” crossing has a railroad milepost address and a unique U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) six-digit number followed by an alpha qualifier. That identifier must be posted at every rail crossing and is monitored by the FRA’s grade crossing inventory. Recent federal legislation requires the operating railroad to verify the inventory for accuracy every three years.

The highway grade crossing posting requires an emergency phone number, the operating railroad’s name, the line’s MP address and the DOT inventory identification number. There are approximately 211,000 such grade crossings in the United States, each with a unique DOT number. If accurate, this posting provides good rail addressing information. An emergency manager could establish a base MP map of a rail line in the jurisdiction.

Because of the number of rail consolidations, abandonments, mergers and failure to update crossing inventory postings as required by law, the grade crossing postings and inventory have a significant error rate. Like any business, there are constant changes on the railroad. It is important to remember that the person in charge of the local railroad’s operation may be hundreds of miles away and never personally seen the line for which he is responsible. Verify and update your railroad file regularly.  

If done correctly, GPS mapping of rail lines is viable and cost-effective for emergency management. Typically each rail owner’s lines are GPS plotted and given an electronic footprint.

Integrating GPS mapped rail lines to include grade crossings, mileposts and other railroad infrastructure with existing maps promotes enhanced government emergency planning. Several years ago, a National Transportation Safety Board investigative report recommended that the National Emergency Number Association facilitate the inclusion of railroad milepost markers on all local emergency response maps across the country.

Many railroads do GPS mapping of their lines, but the data is done for engineering and maintenance purposes, and doesn’t encompass the land outside the immediate right of way. By integrating two well addressed bases, railroads and the community, emergency outcomes can be improved.

Even if a jurisdiction doesn’t GPS map its rail lines, there’s a lot one can do to learn about rail operations: Identify the rail dispatch point of control for your jurisdiction; remember there may be more than one railroad in your area; know whom to contact in a rail emergency; understand the railroad’s emergency response resources, the freight or passenger loads that can be anticipated, grade crossing locations and access points for difficult locations.  

If you have a railroad in your jurisdiction, know the questions to ask so you can ensure that your emergency responders can perform to their peak capacity. Nothing frustrates emergency responders like knowing there is a serious problem and not knowing exactly where it is or how to get there.

Understanding where Milepost 243 is should not be an emergency management mystery.

John Cease is president of Clear Tracks Ahead, a corporation dedicated to the safety of the railroad industry, and formerly the chief of police in Wilmington, N.C., and Roanoke, Va.

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