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Is Memphis ready for a train derailment?

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

It's a headache everyone in Memphis lives with on a daily basis. It's even everyone's favorite excuse for being late to work: the train stopped me.

The next time you are waiting on a train, keep this in mind: If it hasn't already crossed yours, more than 70 trains a day pass along the tracks that run parallel to Poplar Avenue in Memphis and Points East.

What if just one of those trains ran off the rails?

From Louisiana to Canada, death and destruction happen on the rails. Cargo trains running off the tracks, spilling toxic chemicals and forcing hundreds, sometimes thousands to leave their homes.

It hasn't happened in Memphis. Yet.

But what if it did?

"With our railways, we're always concerned with a hazmat incident," said Shelby County Office of Preparedness Executive Director Bob Nations, who has kept a close eye on  what's happened recently in other cities.

"The Canadian incident is one we are looking at very closely because it's a very serious type of derailment," he said. "Everyone stays prepared because we know these shipments come through every day."

National Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, while in Memphis last week, also told Mid-Southerners that the Canadian disaster caused a change in the way rail business is done on the 140,000 miles of rails across the United States.

"Last week, we released an emergency order that responds to some of the things that happened in Canada," Secretary Foxx said. "So, in the immediate future we're guarding against that type of event happening."

Emergency responders in Shelby County play the what-if game all the time. Nations says all fire and police agencies are constantly kept up to date, taught how to react, and how to keep the public safe from disaster on the tracks.

"We can quickly identify what was in a rail car," he said. "That information is usually readily available. Then you have to determine, do you have to evacuate? And those are decisions that have to come very very quickly. I have high confidence in our response agencies in Shelby County. I've seen them work, I've seen them train, I've seen them exercise, and they are ready to go."

So what is carried by the thousands of train cars that pass through Memphis everyday? How many of them carry volatile fuels, toxic or dangerous chemicals?

Do you worry?

"I do not, and I'll tell you why," said Dan Pallme, who knows trains. He spent 11 years in the rail industry working for one of the more than 500 rail lines in America. "By the shear majority of the freight that flows through the Memphis area, very little of that is moved for rail segment."

Pallme is the director of the Intermodal Engineering Department at the University of Memphis. While accidents do happen, we are fortunate to have quality of rail lines moving through Memphis.

"The difference that Memphis has for it is that almost all the railroads that operate in the city are Class 1 railroads," he added. "They are the biggest, they are the best. They are the safest."

The big name rail lines like Norfolk Southern and BNSF dominate the tracks in Memphis. These railroad companies calculate their accidents in mishaps per million miles traveled, counting even the most minor incidents.

Each one has a rating of three or less.

"There's very little of the train movement that's coming in loaded with fuel or combustibles," Pallme said. "You can actually tell when anything, just as you mentioned Darrell, if it has a skull and crossbones or a plaque red to signify hazardous, white to signify poisonous,  you can, if you are sitting at a train, it's a very small percentage."

Add that to the fact, according to the Federal Railway Administration, there hasn't been a significant derailment on any of the major railways in Shelby County in the last 30 years. But that doesn't allow Nations to let his guard down.

"I don't think it's far from anyone's mind who's in the response industry," Nations said.

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