Six cars of a Canadian National Freight train derailed immediately south of the Madison Street grade crossing around 7:50 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Two of those cars contained up to 33,000 gallons each of liquefied propane gas.
No one was injured in the accident, and Madison Street was re-opened to traffic after 10 hours. According to Forest Park Fire Chief Steve Glinke, neither tank car suffered structural damage that would have allowed hazardous contents to escape, and neither completely tipped over.
“These cars are double walled, and are constructed to withstand a significant impact,” said Glinke. He said the only car that was punctured contained a non hazardous plastic substance.
According to one firefighter on the scene, a breach in either propane tank would have required evacuating residences and businesses within a half a mile of the site, including the Altenheim Retirement Home, and several square blocks of residences in both River Forest and Forest Park.
Dozens of feet of track were visibly twisted and torn up on Tuesday night. Railway personnel worked through the night to remove the derailed cars. Four cranes “one from Bridgeview, one from Bedford Park, and two from Hammond, Ind.”were brought in to place the derailed cars back on the tracks, according to Glinke.
Seven local communities responded to the emergency with firefighters under the MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alert System) Division 11 pact. The neighboring communities sent squads specializing in hazardous materials. They remained on the scene until it was determined that the propane had not leaked.
Before dawn Wednesday morning all cars blocking Madison Street had been removed. Deep furrows were visible on the ground where steel rails and railroad timbers had once rested just south of Madison Street.
According to Glinke, about 50 firefighters and 25 police officers responded to the incident, along with representatives from the CSX Railroad Corporation, which owns the stretch of track upon which the accident occurred. Madison Street serves as a dividing line between Canadian National and CSX owned tracks, and the train had just transferred onto the CSX tracks before derailing.
River Forest Deputy Chief of Police Kendra Sullivan said Madison Street was reopened to traffic by 6 a.m. Wednesday. River Forest police assisted Forest Park with traffic control and blocking off streets.
The track was back up and running by late Wednesday afternoon. About 1,000 feet of damaged track needed to be replaced, said Canadian National spokesperson Jim Kvedaras.
According to police and firefighters on the scene Tuesday night, the site at the Madison Street crossing was one of the more advantageous spots for a derailment to occur. The Canadian National tracks run through River Forest for approximately a mile and a half on a steep embankment roughly 150 feet behind and to the west of Park Avenue, from Chicago Avenue to the north to just past Washington Boulevard to the south.
Just after Washington Boulevard, the tracks gradually return to grade level. Had the derailment happened four blocks to the north of the actual site, the rail cars could have rolled down a steep embankment behind the River Forest Village Hall, which houses the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center and the River Forest Fire and Police departments.
Roughly two blocks to the south of Tuesday’s derailment site is the Forest Park Community Center. Besides endangering that building, a derailment would likely have shut down the nearby CTA Blue Line station. A few hundred feet further south, the Canadian National line crosses Desplaines Avenue before crossing over and down along side the Eisenhower Expressway.
“You hate to talk about what could happen,” said Sullivan, who acknowledged River Forest officials are aware of the existing circumstances.
A more serious incident happened on the same line as recently as 22 months ago. In January, 2003 a Canadian National railroad freight train traveling from Memphis to Chicago derailed outside of Tamaroa, Illinois.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 22 of the 108 cars in that train were carrying hazardous materials. An ensuing fire released vinyl chloride, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde from several of the tank cars.
Residents within a three-mile radius were evacuated, including the entire population of Tamaroa. The incident, which cost $1.9 million to clean up, elicited serious concern from NTSB Chairman Ellen Engelman Connors at the time.
The NTSB later determined that the cause of the Tamaroa derailment had been metal fatigue in rails installed just 17 days prior to the incident. Asked about that incident, Kvedaras replied “you are attempting to make a comparison where there is no comparison to be made.”
He said that though Canadian National does not own the tracks where the Forest Park accident occurred, the company inspects nearby tracks it does operate at least twice a week, exceeding the Federal Railroad Agency (FRA) required weekly inspection, and has seen its safety record improve each year for several years.
CSX spokesperson Kim Skorniak said that the company’s tracks are typically inspected once or twice per week depending on traffic, but did not know how often the exact stretch of track where the incident occurred was inspected or when the last inspection had been.
A representative from the NTSB said that the agency only gets involved in the most serious railroad accidents, and would not be investigating the incident.
According to Kvedaras, both Canadian National and CSX will conduct investigations to determine what went wrong, and will report results to the Federal Railroad Agency. An FRA representative said that it could be anywhere from days to months before the cause of the incident is known, but that once information was available it would be posted on the FRA web site and shared with the media.
Glinke said the Forest Park police and fire department would likely meet in the next couple weeks for a “post event critique,” which will include a review of the response as well as a discussion of how they would have responded had hazardous materials leaked and an evacuation been necessary.
“Josh Hawkins contributed to this report