Training for Trains

A 130-ton tank car is a unique beast that demands its handlers have proper safety knowledge
By Kris Bevill | February 22, 2012

The risks of transporting millions of gallons of flammable ethanol around the country by rail or truck are well-known. Groups like the Emergency Ethanol Response Coalition were formed years ago to educate first responders on best practices for ethanol-related incidents. Accidents are rare, but they do happen. For the 200 or so ethanol plants producing more than 13 billion gallons of fuel annually, however, the risk of injury or incident related to transporting ethanol begins well before the train ever leaves the plant.

A couple of decades ago, railroad carriers typically extended their services to include car movement and track maintenance at private rail yards. But as railways have become busier and more unit trains are used, it’s no longer economical for carriers to provide crews to move cars or inspect track on private property. For ethanol plants, this means that plant personnel are now performing railroad duties, usually with little or no safety training. “Thirty years ago, the industry didn’t do a lot of unit shipments, so it was more advantageous for the railroads to operate within the plant and move the cars for the shipper,” says Ken Hay, a retired 37-year veteran of Union Pacific Railroad who spent most of his career as an operations supervisor and who currently serves as a trainer for Rail Safe Training Inc. “With more unit trains, the railroads have decided it’s easier to drop off the cars and leave the handling up to the shipper. It takes two days to load a unit shipment, so it’s unfeasible for a railroad to have a crew there to move cars one at a time. So, the ethanol plant takes the responsibility.”

Without some type of safety training, this practice invites mishaps. Addressing the fact that most ethanol plant employees possess agriculture-related skills as opposed to railroad experience, one industry observer jokes that the job of moving railcars at ethanol plants often gets doled out to the employee who has driven the biggest tractor. But a fully loaded, 130-ton tank car is no joke. It is a unique beast that demands its handlers have at least basic safety knowledge.

The founders of Sioux City, Iowa-based Rail Safe Training created their company several years ago specifically for that reason. A group of long-time railroaders with first-hand knowledge of the dangers posed to ethanol plants and other industries operating private rail yards began to become concerned that, without an opportunity for safety education, it would be only a matter of time before a major incident occurred at one of the country’s ethanol plants. They contacted Brian McNaughton, who contributed a career’s worth of curriculum development experience to the project. Using Class 1 railroad rules and regulations as a base, the company’s founders developed a basic education curriculum about the hazards and procedures needed to operate a rail yard safely.

To date, Rail Safe has provided safety training to about a dozen ethanol companies, several of which operate multiple production facilities. Originally a three-day program, Rail Safe has condensed the training into a one-day course because when ethanol plants are running at full capacity, producers can find it impossible to replace employees for several days. The company is considering offering online training, which would allow plant personnel to complete the training at a more flexible pace.

For first-time participants, the training course begins with a consultation to identify the plant’s “pain points,” or specific areas of difficulty within the yard operations. “We try to target the training to the needs of the plant,” McNaughton says. “Some things almost always need to be addressed at every plant, but you need to hit the target of the customer.” Once the focus of training is identified, a curriculum is designed and plant employees are treated to a four-hour educational course followed by a hands-on demonstration of procedures introduced during training. Some plants sign on for annual safety courses, typically four hours in length, to refresh existing employee skills and train new hires. “Continuous improvement is our goal,” McNaughton says.

Areas for Improvement
Two of the most common mistakes made in rail yards by nonrailroad personnel, according to Rail Safe experts, include failing to set hand brakes on rail cars and “shoving,” which is the railroad equivalent of backing up a vehicle without first checking the blind spot for obstacles. Both of these mistakes are easily preventable, but without proper safety training, personnel may simply not know the risks they are taking. Bill Fry, a Rail Safe consultant with more than 40 years experience at Burlington Northern Sante Fe, points out that railroad employees are required to take extensive training before they are allowed on-to the tracks, but private industries are not required to subject their employees to any type of rail training. “Private industries are trying to run a business and a railroad,” he says. “It takes a lot of learning and care to do that extra stuff every day. Are they going to have more accidents if they don’t [expose employees to training]? Probably.”

Hay says he has spotted a handbrake error at every ethanol plant he’s visited, but stresses it’s not necessarily due to negligence on the part of the plant personnel. More likely, they simply don’t know any better. To be fair, he also often notes a failure by trained railroaders to engage handbrakes on rail cars as well. Hay believes this simple step often gets overlooked because cars appear harmless when they’re motionless on the track. But McNaughton points to two incidents at ethanol plants that could have been avoided had the employees set the handbrakes. In one scenario, a lone car rolled out of the plant’s rail yard and onto the main line where it derailed. Fortunately, the rogue car did not collide with other cars on the track, but the derailment still forced a temporary shutdown of the ethanol plant. Another, more extreme, situation involved multiple cars parked at the top of a small hill and left for the evening. Overnight, wind speeds increased enough to nudge the cars down the hill, where they eventually derailed, ruining a portion of the track and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Neither of those real-life examples resulted in human injury or death but in a worst-case scenario, a slow-moving rail car could easily kill a person. A little-known component of rail liability, according to Rail Safe experts, is that even if an injury or death does not occur on private property, a railroad carrier can, and will, sue a company for assistance in compensating a railroad employee for damages received as a result of a private company error. “It’s amazing how at risk you are,” McNaughton says. Ethanol plants function on thin margins and the cost of a voluntary training course may not immediately appear to be money well spent, but if it prevents an incident from occurring, the training is worth its weight in gold, according to McNaughton. “Just getting a crane to upright a tipped car costs twice as much as the training,” he says. “If the car is damaged, it’s even more expensive.”

Another area now overlooked by railroad carriers, but which carries dire consequences for the ethanol plant, is the track itself. Some railroads still offer occasional track inspections, but not all. Rail Safe includes track inspections in its services, which means someone physically walks every inch of track on the property. Fry and Hay say that railroad tracks at ethanol plants are generally in very good condition because they are relatively new. Railroad tracks can typically withstand heavy use for 50 years, so unless something has happened to jeopardize the integrity of the track, the chance of identifying a major issue is low. But minor problems such as missing or loose bolts or switches in need of recalibration can also be detected during track inspections and fixed before becoming a major problem.

Willing Students
To the ethanol industry’s credit, although many regulations and compliance measures have been placed on the producers’ backs, the industry overall still appears willing to take additional measures to ensure it is operating safely and efficiently. Fry says that in his experience, he finds ethanol plant personnel to be friendly and accepting of the training. “They all know they need something,” he says. “They don’t always know what it is, but they know they need something.”  Hay agrees and says feedback from the training he’s conducted has been positive. “A lot of what I get is: ‘Wow, I never thought of that,’” he says.

McNaughton says the best compliment his company receives is a change in employees’ behavior after attending their safety course. “You can train people all you want, but they go back out to their job and they do it the way they’ve always done it … so to notice a change in behavior means they have become more aware of the situation.” 

Author: Kris Bevill
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 540-6846