Finding the Secret Rail Hazmat Routes Near You

March 15, 2023
Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013, after an oil tanker train derailed in the town center. Explosions and fire killed 47 people and destroyed many buildings and other infrastructure. Photo: Sûreté du Québec, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 1.0).

TipSheet: Finding the Secret Rail Hazmat Routes Near You

By Joseph A. Davis

Journalists who want to tell the public what risks they face from hazardous materials on railroads have one big problem: The public is not allowed to know.

That’s the effect of 2008 federal regulations issued in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration. Those rules let states decide to keep the routing of trains carrying hazmat secret — although they require the federal government to inform the states.

At the time, the Society of Environmental Journalists urged federal agencies not to allow such secrecy. That effort didn’t work. After heavy lobbying from the rail industry, the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (both within the Department of Transportation, or DOT) left disclosure decisions up to the states.

A few states do disclose some of the info. That’s not enough.


Under existing rules, the train that derailed in

East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 wasn’t enough of a

potential hazard to merit routing disclosure to anyone.


Under existing rules, the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 wasn’t enough of a potential hazard to merit routing disclosure to anyone. That’s because the rules were crafted to focus on oil trains.

There are many kinds of hazardous materials carried by rail (SEJournal will have a Reporter's Toolbox on that topic in our next issue). Crude oil is hazardous, but it may not be the most hazardous thing rolling through your community. Because public concern was focused on oil trains, the DOT created a category called high-hazard flammable trains, or HHFT, and focused regulatory action on that. The train that derailed in Ohio was not an HHFT.

Now, in response to the Ohio spill, several Congress members have already introduced bills to tighten up rail hazmat regulations. But none that we have seen so far make it easier for the public to know about hazmat cargoes or routing in advance.


Finding routes, cargoes, vulnerabilities

This is not rocket science. Here are some steps that can help you learn more about railway hazmat threats your community faces.

  • Find the main freight line(s). This is not hard because many main freight lines run right through towns and cities, or right next to them. The biggest are called Class 1 railroads. They are easy to track because there are only five American-owned Class 1 freight railroads in the United States (plus two Canadian-owned ones).
  • Now stake out the rail line(s) that may be of concern. Visit at different times of day. Use binoculars and a long-lens camera to learn the contents of cars by looking at the diamond-shaped placards. Bring your press card. Sometimes you can focus on rail yards or industrial facilities.
  • Identify potentially hazardous cargoes by looking up the UN numbers on the cars (especially tank cars). These numbers identify hazardous cargoes. You may have to do the lookup back at the office. Then you need to sift through and find the most worrisome, frequent or voluminous ones.
  • Figure out where trains are coming from — and going to — if you can. Are you near a source of oil or chemicals? A place that uses them?
  • Try to build a list of train accidents near your area. Here’s one starting point. The FRA Office of Safety Analysis data portal provides another.
  • Now learn all you can about the health consequences of a spill of cargoes of concern (see more in the upcoming Toolbox). 
  • Finally, go back to the maps and your knowledge of the community to figure out what vulnerable facilities or populations are near possible accident sites (i.e., near the tracks). Schools? Nursing homes? Apartment buildings? Population centers? Lakes, streams or wetlands?

After that, the most important thing may be to talk to the first responders who might be called to an incident. It could be the police department, the sheriff, the firefighters, the ambulance service — or even the emergency room of your local hospital.

Does your local fire department have a hazmat unit? Ask about their plans for dealing with a big hazmat incident.

Also talk to your local (or tribal) emergency planning committee, an entity required under federal law to plan for such blow-ups. To find yours, you may have to go through your state emergency response commission. Contact information is listed by state. Some places have agencies called “multi-hazard” agencies; that’s likely who you want.


Other reporting resources

[Editor's Note: For more on hazmat transport, also see a TipSheet on LNG transport and a recent Toolbox on highway hazmat routes.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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