Train involved in Illinois derailment likely passed through La Crosse

La Crosse County emergency management working on evacuation plan

A train derailment on the Wisconsin, Illinios, boarder has La Crosse County emergency management taking a closer look at derailment precautions.   

Just a few hours before the crude oil tanks derailed in Galena, Illinois, Thursday afternoon, La Crosse Emergency Management coordinator Keith Butler said those same cars likely traveled through La Crosse. 

The train was carrying more than 100 cars of crude oil when it derailed. The train derailment happened in a rural area near where the Galena and Mississippi rivers meet.         

No one was injured but officials did have a voluntary evacuation in order. Butler said if this type of accident occurred within the city limits of La Crosse, people would be forced to evacuate.

“If that happened here in La Crosse, it would have been awful, awful circumstances,” said Butler.

When news of the train derailment in Galena crossed Butler’s desk, a sense of curiosity and urgency took over.

“I certainly have taken a look at that particular track and that particular train, it probably passed through La Crosse just a few hours before it derailed there,” said Butler.

Butler was left wondering what went wrong and if that train, carrying more than 100 cars of crude oil, could have derailed here.

“We have some of those same circumstances exist here. There’s a lot of the railroad track next to the Mississippi River, and there is a hunk in the marsh and difficult area to get to. I understand they had to use snowmobile or bike trails to get to the Galena incident. Well, we have those same kinds of problems here.”

With the recent agreement between the city and BNSF for a second rail line through La Crosse next year, Butler is working on creating a precautionary evacuation plan for the area.

“This is a very unique area,” said Butler.

Let’s step back and take a closer look at what happened in Galena. Because the derailment happened in a rural area, officials enacted a voluntary evacuation plan, which spanned about a half a mile around the derailment. Now let’s compare that to La Crosse and what that same derailment would look like here.

“Well a mile on either side of the railroad tracks in La Crosse is pretty extensive,” said Butler.

The yellow shaded area represents a mandatory evacuation about a half a mile away from the railroad track.

“If that was a mile, it actually go through Viterbo, UWL and approaching the downtown area,” said Butler. “Going the other way, you hit the bluffs. The only way to get out is to go down across the tracks.”

It’s these types of scenarios Butler and his team at emergency management are trying to work out so that if something happened here they would be prepared.

“We are learning where the challenges are, where the pinch points are and where the restrictions are to the traffic movement,” said Butler.

Two firefighters from La Crosse did go to Galena to assist with the train derailment. Because of the agreement between BNSF and the city, the La Crosse Fire Department is home to equipment used to fight flammable oil fires.

The firefighters took a trailer carrying about 500 gallons of foam to Galena to help put out the fire. One of the division chiefs has been in contact with the two firefighters who say the experience at the derailment is similar to what they’ve been doing at training.

“Sometimes the training and the experience are two very different things, so it’s good to know the training we got with BNSF is relevant to what we are doing in case of an event in this area,” said Chief Jeff Murphy, with the La Crosse Fire Department.

Those two firefighters are expected to be back in La Crosse Friday night. The department will have a meeting to go over their experience in Galena to see if they can improve on their own preparedness here in La Crosse.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad did release a statement Friday, saying, “We are grateful for the efforts of the first responders at this incident and sincerely regret the inconvenience this event has caused to the community.”

The cause of the derailment is still under investigation.