What’s on those trains?

By Sarah Pryor - Freeman Staff

Oct. 6, 2014

 A train heads south into downtown Waukesha. The tracks in Waukesha are an extension
of the line where trains collided in Slinger.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA - It happens every day in Waukesha: you’re on track to make it to work right on time when you see those red lights flashing and those barriers going down just half a block ahead.

But what’s on the trains that pass through the city seemingly every hour?

Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale said it’s likely a load of coal on its way to a plant in Oak Creek, Kenosha, Sheboygan or Wausau.

“We have quite a mix, but the biggest commodity here in Southeastern Wisconsin is coal,” Plale said.

It’s also likely to be grain or crude oil. If a tank is carrying a hazardous material, there’s an easy way to tell what’s inside, Plale said.

“Every tank or car has a placard. It’s the diamond-shaped sign you see on a side of a car so that law enforcement knows what it’s carrying, whether it’s crude oil, diesel fuel, chlorine, that kind of stuff,” Plale said, adding that crude oil is a relatively new addition to the rails.

Each placard has a four-digit number that corresponds to a hazardous material. If you see the number 1993 on a placard, it means that car is full of a combustible liquid like fuel or weed killer. If you see 3082, it’s carrying something environmentally hazardous.

Plale said the numbers are important for law enforcement to assess the situation in case of an accident like the one in Slinger recently.

Three engines and 10 rail cars derailed just south of Highway 144 after the southbound Canadian National train heading from Fond du Lac to Champaign, Illinois, struck a Wisconsin and Southern Railroad train on a side rail. Three of the cars owned by Canadian National were carrying fracking sand, while the seven other cars were carrying plastic, lumber and steel.

Waukesha City Administrator Ed Henschel said Waukesha is prepared in the event of a train derailment, even if hazardous materials are involved, because our Fire Department has specialized haz mat response training.

Plale said it’s important to remember that train accidents are “very, very, very rare.”

“According to the Association of American Railroads, 99.997 percent of all railroad cars make it from point A to point B without incident. It’s the safest way to transport something,” Plale said. “There’s no need for panic, but everyone should be concerned - knowing what’s on those trains is a good thing. It’s still a very safe mode of transportation. There are lots more truck accidents than train accidents.”

Email: spryor@conleynet.com