Why We Should Know

Being familiar with this transportation machinery and their properties will better prepare you for your high-risk/low-frequency event.
A light rail in nonelectrified territory. The train is powered by a diesel multiple unit. Being in nonelectrified territory eliminates many of the electrical hazards that firefighters can encounter such as third rail or catenary wires. (Photo by author)

Become familiar with the rapid transit system
and adjacent properties

By Brian Butler

Rapid transit or mass transit is common in urban, suburban, and metropolitan areas, transporting millions of commuters every day. Rapid transit includes high-speed rail, commuter rail, light rail, and transit passenger buses. It’s only a matter of time before an incident requiring a fire department response will occur.

Fire departments must prepare for passenger car and locomotive train fires, transit bus fires, extrications, pins, and other various emergencies on rail property.

It’s important that ALL firefighters understand the dangers involving this heavy moving passenger occupied machinery. It’s also important to know the power systems in trains and buses. Trains are powered by overhead catenary lines, third rail, diesel-electric locomotive power, and multiple units. Just identifying the type of rail territory can tell us what hazards to prepare for.

Electrified territory with third rail or catenary has many high-voltage hazards. Whether it’s a 12,000-volt alternating current (AC) overhead catenary wire or a 750-volt direct current (DC) third rail, there’s enough current around these trains to kill firefighters who are carelessly operating hose streams and otherwise coming in contact with a third rail or live catenary wire. Some trains with diesel locomotives may have up to 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel in their tanks.

We must identify and confirm what type of emergency we are responding to and any geographical or terrain issues for access and equipment. What would your tactical considerations be for a report of a train on fire? We would first have to determine whether it’s a burning passenger car or a locomotive and if the train is burning at a ground or elevated platform or along the right-of-way in a difficult-to-access area. This can add difficulty to the incident. A burning train car in a tunnel or on a bridge over water can be a nightmare. The “Murphy’s Law” express has arrived.

A tractor-trailer truck slammed into a Chicago-to-California Amtrak passenger train at a railroad crossing east of Reno, Nevada. [Photo by Brock Hansen (used with permission).]

You must gather this information before implementing the action plan. Knowing if the train is disabled and burning is a critical piece of information. A disabled train (locomotive fire) would eliminate the train being able to make it to a safe area to evacuate passengers. A rescue train would have to respond. Inside tunnels, check the status of ventilation systems and emergency cross passageway locations.  

Freight trains and diesel locomotives carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel sometimes run through rapid transit territory underneath high-voltage catenary lines and through the same tunnels, which can be disastrous during a locomotive or a tank car fire (Baltimore, MD: https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/tr-140.pdf).

Trains are powerful, heavy machines that move at high speeds, some more than 100 miles per hour. Passenger rail cars weigh up to 70 tons, and locomotives more than 100 tons. Consider this for incidents involving mass-casualty derailments, extrications, pin-crush incidents (man under), railroad crossing collisions, and recoveries.

After determining the emergency, territory, propulsion, and location, how do we access the emergency scene with our apparatus, staffing, and equipment? Consider a water supply and bringing lighting and power sources to the scene. An incident during the day at a transit center will be much different than in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night (Alabama: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-09-23-mn-38193-story.html).

 What are the procedures to deenergize an electric locomotive or an energized rail? Confirm contacting command centers to stop movement on adjacent tracks. Depending on the incident’s severity, identify the risks to which untrained and unfamiliar firefighters may be exposed and assign a safety officer to monitor train movement. There have been many mistakes with communications when it comes to stopping train traffic and deenergizing sections of the railway. This can be a fatal mistake if not confirmed and monitored.

Electric locomotive train at the platform with pantograph in electrified territory. During emergencies, the engineer will attempt to make it to a platform or other safe area. (Photo by author)

Man-under-train incidents occur across the United States. As rescuers, you must ensure during the initial size-up the “risk vs. reward factor.” Is the victim under the train dead or alive? Is this a rescue or a recovery? Mitigate all the hazards before rushing in, and use rail employees if present.

Train personnel are highly trained on their equipment; rescuers should take advantage of the knowledge and resources they can provide.

Transit buses are another form of rapid transit. When involved in accidents or fire, the priority is to consider passengers on the bus and emergency personnel when exiting the apparatus, as many of these incidents take place on roads with high-speed traffic. Firefighters could be dealing with various types of buses powered by diesel, CNG, LPG, or a hybrid. We can often identify these on our size-up by badging, cylinder housing, and our senses. This will help determine the best method of controlling any product release, vapor suppression, or extinguishing agent during a fire.

Badging identifying a CNG transit bus. (Photo by author)

It’s important for new firefighters and company officers to become familiar with the rapid transit system and adjacent properties in their response area. Being familiar with this transportation machinery and their properties will better prepare you for your high-risk/low-frequency event.

CNG housing location on a transit bus. (Photo by author)

Brian Butler is a captain with the Trenton (NJ) Fire Department and has been a member of the fire service for 24 years, working on four ladder companies and seven engine companies during his career. He is also a member of the King of Prussia (PA) Fire Rescue, a rescue and hazmat technician, and a level 2 fire instructor. He is the owner of Urban Fire Training.

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