in case of emergency

New rule to require railroads in Texas, beyond to provide hazardous cargo details upon derailment

First responders need to know exactly which hazardous materials are on a train so they can look it up in the government's official guidebook and make sure they have the right protective gear and firefighting tools. Photo by Stefan Gabriel Naghi/Pexels

A new federal rule finalized Monday aims to ensure first responders can find out what hazardous chemicals are on a train almost immediately after a derailment so they can respond appropriately. Texas, a major hub for chemical development, will be affected by the ruling.

Too often in past disasters like last year's fiery Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, firefighters risked their lives trying to extinguish a blaze without knowing the right way to respond. The local fire chief in charge of the response said it took him 45 minutes to learn exactly what was in the 11 burning tank cars on the train, but some firefighters from neighboring departments that came to help said they didn't know what they were dealing with until two hours after the February 3, 2023, crash.

First responders need to know exactly which hazardous materials are on a train so they can look it up in the government's official guidebook and make sure they have the right protective gear and firefighting tools, said Tristan Brown, deputy administrator of the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration agency that proposed the rule.

Knowing what chemical is involved and how much of it is aboard also affects how big of an evacuation zone might be required to protect the public.

“There are so many different types of hazardous materials being transported across the country on any given day — one in 10 goods that move across the United States — and each one, poses unique risks and hazards, certainly to the folks who are running towards a fire,” Brown said. “But certainly as well for anybody who may be living or working in that vicinity.”

The rule was published just one day ahead of the National Transportation Safety Board's final hearing on the East Palestine derailment, where they will discuss exactly what caused that crash and recommend steps to prevent similar disasters.

Train crews have long carried lists of their cargo in the cabs of their locomotives, but in the middle of the chaos after a derailment those engineers and conductors, who might have moved their locomotives miles down the track, can't always be found right away.

That's part of why the largest freight railroads developed an app called AskRail roughly a decade ago that enables firefighters to quickly look up the details of what each train carries. But not every firefighter had the app, and cell phones don't always have a signal strong enough to work in a disaster.

Regulators want the railroads to continue expanding access to that app, including to 911 centers, so information reaches first responders sooner. The railroads have been expanding access over the past year. The Association of American Railroads trade group estimates some 2.3 million first responders now have access to that information as a result of the effort to expand into dispatch centers.

The six biggest railroads also make train cargo information immediately available through the chemical industry's hazardous materials hotlines in the U.S. and Canada known as the CHEMTREC and CANUTEC, emergency call centers.

Norfolk Southern said that in addition to AskRail it is working with a different program called RapidSOS that will allow the railroad to directly send information about its trains to first responders after a derailment — instead of forcing them to look up the details in AskRail. The railroad said its work fits well with the new rule.

But the new federal rule also applies to the hundreds of smaller railroads that aren't involved in AskRail. Even railroads that only have one or two employees now must have a plan to get the crucial details of their cargo to the local fire department quickly, even if its as simple as having the fire chief's cell phone number at the ready. Railroads also must test their plan at least once a year.

“In a hazmat incident, firefighters and first responders arriving on scene need to know what kind of hazardous materials are present so they can protect themselves and their communities,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.

It's not clear how this rule might have changed the outcome in East Palestine, but more information could have helped responding firefighters.

The derailment prompted a nationwide reckoning over railroad safety and prompted Congress to propose changes and regulators like Buttigieg to urge railroads to do more to prevent derailments.

The Federal Railroad Administration has issued various advisories about different aspects of railroad operations, but the reforms in Congress have stalled because Republicans wanted to wait for the final NTSB report and regulators have had only limited success making changes.

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A View From HETI

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now."

And, predictably, some of those waves are caused by new momentum within the energy transition.

"The energy transition has thrown up a lot of questions for everyone in the maritime industry," Costello says. "The regulations create a lot of questions around cost primarily. ... And that has created a huge number of opportunities for technology."

Fuel as a primary cost for the maritime industry. These cargo ships are traversing the world 24/7 and burning fuel at all times. Costello says there's an increased focus on the fuel process — "all with a goal of essentially reducing carbon intensity usage."

One of the ways to move the needle on reducing the carbon footprint of these ships is optimizing the time spent in port, and specifically the delays associated. Demurrage are charges associated with delays in loading and unloading cargo within maritime shipping, and Costello estimates that the total paid globally in demurrage fees is around $10 billion to $20 billion a year.

"These fees can be huge," Costello says. "What technology has really enabled with this problem of demurrage is helping companies drill down to the true root cause of what something is happening."

All this progress is thanks to the enhancement — and wider range of acceptance — of data analysis and artificial intelligence.

Costello, who says Voyager has been improving its profitability every quarter for the last year, has grown the business to around 40 employees in its headquarters of Houston and three remote offices in Brazil, London, and Singapore. The company's last round of funding was a series A in 2021. Costello says the next round, if needed, would be next year.

In the meantime, Voyager is laser focused on providing optimized, cost-saving, and sustainable solutions for its customers — around half of which are headquartered or have a significant presence in Houston. For Costello, that's all about putting the control back into the hands of his customers.

"If we think back to the real problems the industry faces, a lot of them are controlled by different groups and parties. The fact that a ship cannot get in and out of a port quickly is not necessarily a function of one party's issue — it's a multitude of issues, and there's no one factor," Costello says on the show. "To really make the whole process efficient end-to-end you need to provide the customer to access and options for different means of getting cargo from A to B — and you need to have a sense of control in that process."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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