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By Daniel Niepow, Associate EditorAt the scene of a train derailment, a quick exchange of information between railroads and first responders is crucial. Emergency crews can more adequately assess the situation if they know which commodities the train was hauling — especially if those commodities happen to be hazardous.
At least, that’s the line of thinking behind the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) AskRail™ app, which enables first responders to use their smartphones to retrieve data about the contents of each rail car involved in a derailment. After responders enter a car’s number into the app, they can check whether that car is empty or loaded, and if it’s loaded, whether the contents pose a safety hazard, according to AAR’s Assistant Vice President of Environment and Hazmat Robert Fronczak. The first app of its kind, AskRail debuted in October 2014 and underwent an update in March of this year. The app, which is available on both Apple and Android devices, also provides 24/7 emergency numbers for all Class I railroads and Amtrak. The AAR’s most recent update of the app allows responders to view the contents of the entire train list in order by entering either a car or locomotive number. Although railroad crews are required to carry physical documentation spelling out which commodities are being transported on their trains, that information may not be easily accessible to first responders after a derailment, Fronczak said via email.If train crews received instructions to move to a safe location, for example, they’re no longer on hand to supply this data to responders. “What AskRail does is provide another avenue to get the information into the hands of emergency responders,” Fronczak said.He noted that responders do have the option of contacting railroads to receive cargo shipping information electronically or by fax, but if neither of those methods is readily available, AskRail can help.Since access to that information could pose a potential security threat, the app is only available to invited users to ensure railroads know exactly who’s using it.
Although the AAR doesn’t yet have any statistics on AskRail’s usage, the app has been received well by the first responders who’ve employed it, according to Fronczak. It also earned the praise of U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who in June demonstrated the app at a BNSF Railway Co. facility in Chicago.“Coupled with emergency training and response planning, AskRail augments the flow of information and specifics between freight railroads and emergency first responders in communities along the nation’s 140,000-mile freight-rail network,” Lipinski said in a press release issued at the time.Aside from AskRail’s more immediate uses at the scene of a derailment, it also can come in handy when training new emergency responders. The app provides a list of the top 125 commodities moved by rail, which gives responders an idea about the cargo that has a higher probability of moving through their communities. In turn, that means emergency response agencies can train their staff on the proper handling of those commodities, Fronczak said. Knowing what goods are likely to be shipped through their areas might also allow these agencies to obtain the equipment necessary to respond to a derailment, he added.