In 2011, a passenger train with 200 people onboard crashed into a tractor-trailer near Reno, killing five. Sixteen people were injured when two passenger trains collided in Oakland. And a train carrying more than 175 passengers from California to Chicago derailed in Nebraska, injuring nine.
For emergency responders with passenger rail service running through their communities, a train derailment or accident is a nightmare. And until recently, little training was available to help responders prepare for such an incident.
So when Fire Chief Dan Small of Cumberland, Maine, called the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) to ask for specialized rescue training for rail emergencies, the wheels started turning. With its subject matter experts in fire and rescue and a seven-car Amtrak passenger train derailment at TEEX’s renowned disaster training facility, Disaster City®, a passenger rail rescue course was a natural fit.
TEEX reached out to Amtrak, who had donated the locomotive and coaches to the training organization in the 1990s. Amtrak collaborated with TEEX on developing a course designed to provide responders with the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform search and rescue operations at a passenger train or commuter train disaster. A guest instructor from Amtrak came to College Station to assist with the delivery of the Passenger Rail Rescue class in December 2011 and April 2012. An Amtrak instructor will again be on hand for the September 2012 class, where students will learn first-hand about the challenges and hazards of each specific type of Amtrak passenger rail car.
TEEX’s hands-on course uses the seven-car passenger train derailment at Disaster City® as well as some specialty props that allow students to learn specific skills such as “hot-cutting” through metal and how to remove an Amtrak emergency access window in 15 to 20 seconds. They also practice extricating victims through windows and doors, especially from cars that are turned on their sides or at a precarious angle on top of an adjacent car.
Course participants also have homework: they read and discuss case studies and NTSB reports of previous rail incidents that tie into the hands-on scenarios they face during the class. One of the instructors is Brian Freeman, who spent 30 years on the London Fire Brigade. He provides his unique perspective on responding to the London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005, and discusses techniques for dealing with train accidents inside tunnels.
The 40-hour Passenger Rail Course concludes with a realistic 4-hour nighttime train derailment disaster exercise involving many volunteer “victims” from the local community. The exercise includes difficult access challenges for the students to overcome, such as people trapped deep inside the train. The students’ mission is to rescue as many “victims” as they can as fast as they can.
Besides Cumberland, Maine, responders from New York City, Boston and Fort Worth have completed the course so far.
With more than 220,000 miles of track in the United States, and more than 8,800 passenger locomotives and coaches, safety and emergency preparedness are vital. This course is one step toward making sure those who respond to a rail disaster in their community have the training and skills to save lives.
-- Brian Smith is the Coordinator for the Passenger Rail Rescue course offered by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in College Station, Texas.