A train travels through Midtown. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

A train travels through Midtown. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Each day, thousands of tons of freight rolls through densely populated areas of Kingston and the Town of Ulster on CSX’s railroad tracks. An unknown, but likely increasing, proportion of the cargo is highly flammable, toxic or both. While most area residents rarely think about the risk, local first responders and elected officials have placed a catastrophic explosion or toxic spill along the rail line near the top of a list of potential disasters which threaten the Kingston metropolitan area.

Last month those dangers were highlighted when an engine and freight car, part of a train which included 90 empty tanker cars, went off the tracks near Boice’s Lane in the Town of Ulster. The low-speed derailment caused no injuries and no damage. But CSX’s failure to promptly report the incident to local authorities — Town Supervisor Jim Quigley learned of the derailment when he received a call from the owner a deli near the tracks — prompted a $10,000 fine on the company and calls for rail safety reforms from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. Quigley echoed Schumer’s statement when he pointed out that tanker cars carrying volatile material lack the safety features required for barges which carry similar material on the Hudson River or for tractor-trailers on the state Thruway.

“If we’ve put these regulations and requirements on other modes of transportation, there’s no reason for railroads to not have to adhere to the same rules to benefit the safety of our residents,” said Quigley.

The Town of Ulster derailment underscores locally a national increase in concern about the safety of rail transport. In December a train loaded with extra-volatile “Bakken crude” from the oil fields of the Dakotas derailed near the small town of Casselton, N.D., sparking an enormous fire and forcing hundreds to evacuate. Last summer, unattended tanker cars filled with Bakken crude exploded in a Quebec town, killing 47. The incidents prompted a warning from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Bakken crude on the rails posed a more significant threat to public safety than less volatile types of crude oil. That’s unlikely to stop the western oil boom which is expected to boost the amount of oil shipped on U.S. rails from 11,000 carloads in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year according to industry officials.

Threat assessment

In Kingston, where the Common Council recently adopted a citywide emergency management plan, city and county officials met recently to carry out a threat assessment. The process involved careful evaluation of the likelihood of catastrophes, ranging from civil unrest to earthquakes. According to a draft copy of the report, hazardous material in transit comes in second with score of 296, just behind the number one threat — water supply contamination, which scores a 310. By contrast the lowest ranking threat on the list — food shortage — scores a 134.

Alderwoman Elisa Ball (D-Ward 6) attended a meeting of department heads earlier this month to discuss the emergency plan. Ball noted that the rail line runs through a densely populated part of the city that includes the Stuyvesant Charter, Colonial Gardens and Birchez housing developments.

“The possibility of a train catastrophe was quite high,” said Ball. “And you’re talking about residential neighborhoods.”

Ball said that there were other issues to be addressed by the emergency management team, including relocating or finding an alternative to the city’s designated evacuation center, the Andy Murphy Neighborhood Center, which stands close by the tracks on Broadway.

Ball said that her biggest concern, however, was communication. The city currently relies on social media, robocalls and a text message alert system — that residents must sign up for — to warn about emergencies. Ball said that she’s concerned the existing infrastructure could leave thousands of tourists who flock to the city each summer, as well as those without landlines and who haven’t signed up for the text alerts, in the dark in the event of a major catastrophe. Ball once advocated a system of emergency alert sirens to sound the alarm, but now she thinks it would be too expensive.

“Communications seem to be one of our biggest problems,” said Ball. “We can put this on Facebook, we can send out text alerts, but if you’re out of the house and your phone is off it doesn’t matter. We need to figure out a better way to communicate.”

Ball said that the emergency management committee would meet again this month to begin formulating specific responses to various emergencies, including rail disasters.

Training on the way

For Town of Ulster Fire Chief Sam Appa, meanwhile, preparing for a major fire of chemical spill is along the rail line is part of ongoing business. In fact, Appa said, members of the department will undergo two days of training provided by CSX on how to deal with railroad incidents. The training, which was scheduled prior to last month’s derailment, will include classroom and hands-on training using CSX equipment, including standard tanker cars.