Cedar Rapids Fire Department spokesman Greg Buelow estimates 90,000 carloads of ethanol pass through the city every year, up from 50,000 carloads in 2007.
"Within Cedar Rapids, the rail cars are moving 10, 15 mph," he said. "When they get out in the rural area, that’s where they’re getting some speed up."
Area firefighters regularly practice responding to tank car derailments with a set of modified rail cars maintained by the railroad and chemical shippers, Buelow said.
The TRANSCAER (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response) program also covers tanker-truck spills of other hazardous chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia. The last local training was in May, and the TRANSCAER train is expected back next spring.
Cedar Rapids has three trucks equipped with foam systems designed to smother spilled flammables. The fire department also has a foam-carrying trailer, and all its trucks can deliver foam to an accident site, Buelow said.
Firefighters have taken additional special training for large-scale accidents involving hazardous shipments, including instruction from railcar manufacturers on fixing leaking valves.
The vast majority of tank cars are owned by shippers or car-leasing companies, not the railroads themselves, said Joshua Sabin, director of administration for Cedar Rapids-base Iowa Northern Railway.
"It’s kind of an early argument yet," Sabin said. "It sounds like it could become more of a major one. Whatever the government and regulatory agencies want to do by way of safety for these cars, they’ll do. They’ll pass down guidelines and we’ll certainly adhere to them. In the meantime, we operate as safely as possible."
There have been just derailments causing three hazardous materials releases in Iowa since 2003, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
"Looking at the volume of materials being moved, the incident rate is relatively small," Buelow wrote in an email. "Nevertheless, industry and the fire department have to be prepared."“The fundamental issue is track operations and their maintenance, not railcars," said Christina Martin, vice president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol trade group. "For several years the ethanol industry has been working with Federal Railroad Administration, railcar ow