KCBD INVESTIGATES: Decoding what trains and trucks are carrying through your community

Philip Contreras and his son Lucas waive to the trains as they pass by their East Lubbock home
Philip Contreras and his son Lucas waive to the trains as they pass by their East Lubbock home

LUBBOCK COUNTY, TX (KCBD) - "Look, look at the train," Phillip Contreras told his one-year-old son Lucas as he held his child's hand in the front yard of their home.

"Wave to it, tell it bye," Contreras said.

Contreras and Lucas watch trains pass by their East Lubbock home every day.

Multiple tracks rest feet away from their home and from an elementary school.

"All the time they come by and I have no idea what is on them," Contreras said.

Attorney Kevin Glasheen said he too often wonders what trains are carrying through the South Plains.

"When I see tank cars on a railroad, yeah absolutely I think about what is in them and what is going to happen when it eventually happens that they derail and spill, rupture, burn...it happens," Glasheen said.

Glasheen said he has worked about a dozen train wreck cases and "worked with some of the best railroad lawyers in the country. Derailments are becoming a bigger and bigger issue nationally."

"Any time you see a train you can expect that it is probably carrying some dangerous materials and you probably would not want to be anywhere near if it derailed," Glasheen said.

"Well, yeah, because it is like if they were to roll over, it's just right here, right up hill," Contreras said.

"You don't know what's going by your house and when a derailment or an explosion occurs, all you are going to know is that you don't want to be anywhere close to it because it's going to take a while for anyone to find out what it is that's burning," Glasheen said.

Numbered placards indicate what trains are carrying.

First responders can look up the number in an emergency response guidebook and not only find out what is inside, but how to respond if there is an emergency.

Tank cars parked just on the other side of Contreras' home have placards that read 1267, which is petroleum crude oil and 3295.

"3295 is hydrocarbon, which is basically an oil type product," said Steve Holland, a Division Chief with Lubbock Fire Rescue.

"If it's a large spill, I think, I looked in the book, it would be about a 1,000 foot evacuation. A large fire we would be evacuating about a half a mile radius," Holland said.

Meaning Contreras' neighborhood, which includes that elementary school, would need to be evacuated if there was an accident. Holland says a derailment is unlikely.

"I think the risk is a lot lower because it's not on a high speed track that is constantly moving, where you might have a possibility of a derailment," Holland said.

However, Glasheen said the threat is still there.

"Speed is cited as a cause in less than two percent of derailments. It is certainly a factor, but track defects are the main cause of derailments," Glasheen said.

Defects like broken rails and bearing failure are common causes, according to the FRA rail equipment accident database.

Ed Greenberg is with the Association of American Railroads in Washington D.C.

He said, "Safety of the nation's 140,000-mile rail system is a priority of every railroad that moves across the country's economy, including through Lubbock County."

Greenberg said freight railroads are spending $29 billion this year maintaining and modernizing the nation's rail network.

He said the freight rail industry recognizes that as a shared responsibility with shippers, they must remain committed to advancing crude oil rail safety even further.

Holland said the federal government requires first responders to know where hazardous material is stored in Lubbock, but they are not informed as to what is traveling through.

"That's just up to what may be shipped in and out. We have a storage facility here in town where a lot of the distributors come and pick up the gasoline, diesel and stuff and transport it, but that's probably our largest hazardous material that's traveling in bulk in the area," Holland said.

According to Holland, those trucks should not be traveling down your neighborhood streets.

"There are hazardous cargo routes through Lubbock, but if you'll notice, you'll see signs that say HC, and will point in a direction. These are all designed and mandated by the federal government. There should never be any hazardous material cargo just down your neighborhood street," Holland said.

"People want to know what dangerous chemicals are in their backyard, but you can figure that if there's a train that's got tanker cars that are going down a track, you don't want that stuff spilled in your back yard," Glasheen said.

While Contreras cannot control what comes through his back yard, he is now aware of the resources available to learn what trains and trucks are carrying.

Here's a link to the emergency response guidebook published by the U.S. Department of Transportation that decodes the placards and explains how to deal with hazmat transportation accidents so first responders can make those critical decisions within minutes.

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