(Article appeared in print as "Righting the rails")
More than 18,000 fire and rescue departments directly border a right of way served by the National Railroad Passenger Corp. — better known as Amtrak — which encompasses more than 25,000 miles of rails. Those numbers climb significantly by factoring in heavy- and light-rail systems. Within the U.S., passenger-rail is responsible for transporting more than 12 million commuters each day. Every day, each of these passenger trains has the potential to become a mass-casualty incident involving hundreds of people on Amtrak trains, or thousands of people during rush hour on a large city’s subway or commuter-rail system.
Responders to passenger-rail incidents face large numbers of patients, ranging from walking wounded to those who are trapped and require specialized extrication techniques. Access to the incident site almost always proves challenging. Once the scene is accessed, responders often are faced with complicated stabilization and extrication problems that can require the application of multiple techniques — confined space, emergency shoring and stabilization, high- and low-angle rope rescue, vehicle and machinery extrication techniques, and on-scene hot metal cutting.
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Much emphasis has been placed on screening and securing the passenger-rail system from terrorist incidents in recent years; however, few resources have been directed at the actual response to passenger-rail incidents. For communities that have commuter, heavy or light rail passing through their jurisdiction, advanced rescue training and exercises for a passenger-rail incident are crucial.
Types of rails
Prior to discussing the challenges of passenger-rail rescue, it is important to understand the different types of passenger-rail systems in the U.S. Each provides its own unique response considerations and challenges:
- Commuter rail: Typically operates between city centers and their adjacent suburbs. Amtrak is the largest commuter rail system in the U.S.
- Heavy rail: Also known as metro, subway or rapid transit, and supports a heavy volume of passenger traffic.
- Light rail:Also called streetcar, tramway or trolley; operates electric passenger cars on fixed rails in urban areas.
Two significant passenger-rail incidents provide a clear example of the size and scope of what a passenger-rail incident can become: the 2008 Chatsworth, Calif., collision of a Metro train and freight train in which 25 were killed and 135 injured, and the 2009 Washington, D.C., collision of two commuter trains in which nine were killed and 52 injured. These incidents were the result of operator error and faulty equipment, respectively. In each incident, the initial on-scene response time was quick, the response was well-organized, and the incident commanders were armed with significant resources and equipment. But this is not always the case for the thousands of miles of passenger and commuter rail lines that pass through remote areas which are difficult to access, or through small jurisdictions with fewer emergency responders and less equipment.
In addition to train-versus-train incidents, the potential exists for train-versus-vehicle incidents at railroad crossings. On Jan. 26, 2005, a California Metrolink train crashed into an SUV that was sitting on the tracks in Glendale, Calif. The crash derailed two additional trains, killed 11 passengers and injured 180 people. The incident required a significant rescue and triage operation, which involved more than 300 firefighters and 35 ambulances from within Los Angeles County. This passenger-rail incident required mutual aid from Glendale, Los Angeles and Burbank police and fire departments; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; and the California Highway Patrol.
There are five major areas to consider when responding to passenger-rail incidents, each of which is relevant to all three categories of rail systems.