Back to the Sep-Oct 2019 issue

Safety First: Railroad Hazmat Training

By Pat Brady

Railroad companies safely transport everyday necessities we all use, including cars, furniture, and food. Some of these necessities are hazardous materials, such as crude oil and ethanol, fertilizer used by farmers, and even chemicals used in cleaning products.

According to federal studies, 99.9% of hazardous materials (hazmat) transported by rail reach their destination without incident. But accidents can happen. And when they do, local first responders need to be prepared. Training is available to help make sure they are.

Incident prevention strategies

A safe and secure rail network is essential to our nation’s future and important to communities across Minnesota. Transportation of hazmat by rail is subject to strict oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Railroads work with these and other federal, state, and local agencies on hazmat-related issues, including train routing, safety, security, tank car design, emergency response, and more. Railroads also apply their own special operating procedures for trains carrying hazmat.

Preventing incidents is the best way to keep everyone safe. Yet, there is also a need to be ready to respond if something does happen. Strong emergency response can help minimize the scope and duration of any incident.

Training for local first responders

While railroads have hazmat responders strategically located along rail lines, local and tribal emergency responders are usually first on the scene and become incident commanders for the duration of a larger response. It’s critical that these local first responders have information on best response for rail incidents, so they stay safe while also protecting the public.

The railroad industry and the state of Minnesota provide hazmat training. Recognizing many fire departments are made up of all volunteers, the training is provided with mobile training units out in communities. Web-based training is also available at no cost.

Training courses teach responders about rail equipment, safe transportation of chemicals by rail, and hazard communication. The courses have been improved every year using feedback from first responders.

In hands-on exercises, responders learn how to identify hazardous materials, where they can quickly find information about the product involved in an incident, and how to shut down a locomotive.

Larger-scale training exercises allow for practicing placement of boom. Booms are used in water response to contain products like crude oil.

Learning how to use the equipment before it’s needed and connecting with railroad experts in a non-emergency situation takes the guesswork out of responding to an actual incident.

In addition to their own and contractor equipment, railroads often have agreements with larger fire departments to store response equipment. The equipment can be used for any incident on— or off—the railroad tracks.

Meeting responders on their own turf

Visions of training may bring to mind a dry-erase board or a projected presentation. Many railroad hazmat classes aren’t ordinary, though, and neither is the classroom.

In some cases, a mobile classroom made from a modified boxcar can be hauled into town. This is especially helpful when a fire department doesn’t have a training room, or if the training room is far from a rail yard.

A mobile classroom travels to locations throughout the year accompanied by a training tank car that has been fitted with the various valves used on different tank car types for more hands-on learning. Thousands of Minnesota’s first responders from communities across the state have been trained through such a program.

For more information about training, visit and

Resources at your fingertips

The rail industry has developed several new resources in the last few years to help Minnesota communities access information. For example, an app called AskRail provides fire departments with information about commodities in every rail car, along with the best emergency response to an incident involving that commodity. It also provides individual railroad contact information.

In addition to the AskRail app, fire chiefs, emergency managers, and police departments can request free on-site and web-based training from railroads. They can also ask railroads for emergency response plans and for hazmat traffic flow reports that detail what hazmat commodities are shipped by rail through a town.

The safety record of rail transportation is strong. Minnesota responders have many avenues to access rail hazmat information and training resources to prepare just in case.

Pat Brady is general director of hazardous materials safety with BNSF Railway ( BNSF is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (