Recent train derailments renew focus on safety
Foam supply could handicap time to put out fires


Nov. 10, 2015


Railroad workers tend to the trucks of an oil tanker after it derailed near West and Milford streets on Sunday in Watertown.
 Eric Oliver/Conley News Service

Two train derailments over the weekend in Wisconsin brought back memories of three derailments in Washington County since July 2002.

A Canadian Pacific Railway freight train derailed Sunday in Watertown, spilling nearly 1,000 gallons of crude oil and prompting evacuations. On Saturday, a freight train derailed near Alma, spilling more than 18,000 gallons of ethanol.

Washington County Emergency Management Director Rob Schmid said the most serious of the three local incidents since 2002 occurred in Addison on July 15, 2002, when 34 freight cars from a 107-car Canadian National train derailed on a concrete bridge near Wildlife Road.

Schmid said county fire departments and other emergency personnel are consistently training to handle such emergencies, but there’s a problem.

“When you have oil, ethanol or other fuel-related fires you have to smother them with lots of foam,” Schmid said. “Area fire departments don’t have enough of this foam on hand to quickly put out a large fire. They’d have to try to contain it until enough of the foam arrives. There is a cache of the foam stored at Fort McCoy. So it would take a while to get here.”

Fort McCoy is about 150 miles from West Bend.


The above map shows railway lines throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
 Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Hartford has a rail line that extends through parts of the city, including downtown, and has a supply of foam, but does not have a large supply on hand because of space limitations. Fire Chief Paul Stephans said his department regularly trains to handle the side effects of derailments.

“We’ve attended a number of training sessions and continue to do so,” Stephans said. “We also have a foam supply that we can use in Dodge County in Juneau that is there through the Dodge County Fire Chiefs Association. If we needed more then we could contact the source at Fort McCoy or elsewhere, but the supply in Juneau is much closer.”


The scratched side of an oil tanker after it derailed near West and Milford streets in Watertown on Sunday.
 Eric Oliver/Conley News Service

Schmid said train engineers must have a manifest on board that details what products or materials the train is hauling and in which rail car it is located.

A far less serious derailment, Schmid said, took place in Germantown in 2011 when only “a couple of cars” derailed.

The most recent derailment in Washington County was July 20, 2014, when three engines and 10 rail cars derailed south of Highway 144 in Slinger after a southbound Canadian National train struck a Wisconsin and Southern Railroad train on a side rail.

Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plule said the Slinger incident was caused by human error and “some railroad employees lost their jobs because of it.” He said he has inspectors at the scene of the recent derailments.


An overview of the cleanup efforts on the railway at West and Milford streets in Watertown.
 Eric Oliver/Conley News Service

“We’re only in charge of monitoring the rail crossings,” Plule said. “So far we’ve found no problems at the crossings in those two areas. The Federal Railroad Commission inspects and monitors the rails.

“Frankly they have their hands full,” Plule said. “They just don’t have enough inspectors to complete inspections as quickly as they’d like.”

According to a map available online from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Railroads, there are about 35 miles of usable rail line in Washington County.

Calls were placed to Canadian Pacific Railroad for comment and to the Federal Railroad information seeking information. Neither returned those calls before press time.

Reach reporter Joe VanDeLaarschot at