OTTUMWA — Wapello County residents get used to trains rolling through. Live here long and it just becomes part of the background noise for most people.
What most people don’t realize is just how many trains come through the county. There are 45 separate at-grade crossings, and those are just the ones accessible to the general public. Most are in Ottumwa, 29 in all.
Ottumwa has about 46 trains per day passing through. Two of those carry Amtrak passengers. The rest carry freight. Coal is common. So is grain. Oil tankers are, too. And most of those 46 trains cross Market Street, which is also the busiest railroad intersection for vehicles. Federal agencies estimate 6,800 vehicles cross the tracks there every day.
Is there reason to worry about the trains that move through the area? Yes, according to experts, but not so much as one might expect. And the most significant threats aren’t necessarily the ones that people might think of immediately.
Rail lines across Iowa
Iowa contains 3,947 miles of railway, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. That’s a tiny fraction of the road network. Less than 10 percent of the state’s pipelines, too. And that’s pre-Bakken pipeline. All told, railways constitute only 2.4 percent of the state’s network for transporting freight.
But railroads punch above their weight, carrying about 14 percent of all freight in Iowa. Most of that is grain, but there are other materials as well. And rail transportation is more efficient than any other method, except for water.
The risk at any one crossing is low. The Federal Railroad Administration gives the crossing at Market Street an accident prediction value of 0.087451. That means the administration gives the site an 8.7 percent probability of a crash in any given year.
In fact, federal records show the most recent accident at Market Street was in 2011. There have only been three in all of Wapello County since 2011.
But train crashes don’t make headlines because they’re frequent. When they happen, they can do tremendous damage. In 2015 a train derailment near Dubuque sent 14 cars carrying ethanol off the rails. Three caught fire and an estimated 51,000 gallons of ethanol was released.
Managing the risks
If Mike Craff is working alongside the rail lines, it’s probably a bad day for someone. He’s an assistant fire chief in Ottumwa and vice president of the Iowa State Hazmat Task Force.
That gives Craff a unique view on the transportation of materials through Ottumwa. He knows some of the things shipped through the area can be dangerous. His biggest concerns aren’t the same as what most people might assume, though.
A derailment involving radioactive materials might send a shiver down people’s spines, but Craff is relatively calm about that possibility. “Those containers are so well built,” he said.
What about anhydrous ammonia? It can cause serious injuries and, since it’s a gas, it’s hard to contain. An accident involving a large anhydrous container would be serious, but Craff said there’s a good case to be made for smaller amounts posing a greater risk to the public.
“We get into the smaller amounts, like farmers, and they deal with it. The regulations aren’t the same as for shippers who ship this stuff for a living,” he said.
What gets Craff’s attention is a much more common material on Iowa railways: crude oil. Cleaning up a leak caused by a derailment involving crude oil tankers would be a mess. A fire would be disastrous.
“If one of those catches on fire we pretty much have to let it burn out,” said Craff.
An April report by the Iowa DOT showed eight Iowa railroads ship crude oil or biofuels. Both ship on the Burlington Northern line that runs through Ottumwa, as well as on Canadian Pacific rail lines through town. Most of the four billion gallons of ethanol produced in Iowa is shipped by rail, and another two billion gallons of crude oil was shipped through Iowa in 2014.
That report concluded that preparation for a derailment involving crude oil or ethanol is a weakness for Iowa in general. Nicholas Martini is Wapello County’s emergency coordinator. He said local emergency responders have a good handle on the risks.
“We plan for anything to happen if there’s a hazard, a risk,” Martini said. “We constantly work with other agencies.”
To Martini, awareness is critical. People need to know that, if there is a derailment, approaching is not a good idea. Call 911 and let the experts take care of things.
Craff isn’t particularly worried. Railroad equipment has improved considerably, and he knows the work his department has put in to train for hazardous materials incidents.
“Every Monday is our hazmat day at the station,” he said. “I feel confident in our department.”