Rail tank car helps first responders prepare in case of derailment

A donated rail tank car is helping La Crosse first responders prepare for a future train derailment.

In the past few years, there have been train derailments in this area including in Alma, Brownsville and most recently in March, Prairie Du Chien.

Derailments can lead to train cars catching fire and releasing hazardous material, so the La Crosse Fire Department said it’s best to be prepared.

“We’ve got a lot of tracks going through the city of La Crosse, and unfortunately this could happen anywhere,” Training Division Chief Frank Devine said.

Devine said the department’s hazmat team responds to incident in eight counties in the state and also helped during an oil spill in Galena, Illinois, so hands-on training is a must.

In the past, Devine said some La Crosse fire department responders would go out of state to practice at simulated train car derailments.

Now thanks to the donation, the whole department can train in La Crosse at its training site on Isle La Plume.

“What better way to be prepared than to actually have a car to train?” he said.

BNSF Railway donated a rail tank car to the department’s training site and delivered it Thursday.

“The empty tank car weighs about 60,000 pounds, so you can get the sense of enormity of equipment and the usefulness of training and familiarity with it,” BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said.

The old fuel car is tipped on its side as if it’s been derailed.

“We can train on how to apply foam to the train car, and simulate it’s on fire,” Devine said. He said they plan on using propane to make the train car seem like it’s really on fire.

He said, however, derailed cars don’t have to be on fire to pose a hazard.

“The valves could open and leak,” Devine said. “We have the tools and training to shut the proper valves.”

“The more you know the better off you are,” McBeth said. “So while we work to prevent these incidents, we also understand preparing and having information on the front end is always the better case.”

As the old saying goes, you’re better safe than sorry.

“If an unfortunate accident happens in our area, our responders will have better knowledge on what they need to do,” Devine said.

Divine said other agencies and first responders will be able to use the tank car for training as well. He doesn’t have a timeline yet on when training will begin.