Are Milwaukee Area Rail Lines Becoming Safer?

Oct 25, 2016

Trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee on a daily basis. Each week, up to 14 of them haul crude oil.

While the city has not experienced any accidents with those tankers, there have been disasters elsewhere, both in the U.S. and Canada.

We wondered, is Milwaukee making progress in protecting the area from a potential accident?

Ask Cheryl Nenn of the group Milwaukee Riverkeeper - her answer is an unequivocal no.

“Our infrastructure is very old and designed for grains and things like that and not for these heavy trains of crude and other hazardous chemicals,” Nenn says.

A century-old bridge here, called Old Rusty, has become the symbol of public concern.

Close up of one of Old Rusty's girders before Canadian Pacific tended them.
Credit Susan Bence

“(It) has holes in it the size of small dinner plates, that you can actually look through the steel girders, the ones that are connecting the bridge to the ground. But they told us there was no problem, we should not be concerned,” Nenn says.

She says after news media covered community concern, Canadian Pacific took action.

“They came in and kind of stabilized all of these girders, put these massive concrete blocks around all the girders,” Nenn says. Rail lines also cut through the heart of neighboring Wauwatosa.

Fire chief Rob Ugaste shoulders the concerns of its 47,000 residents.

“They’re afraid that it’s going to cause problems with the river, it’s going to kill people and the businesses,” Ugaste says.

Ugaste is president of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association. It’s calling for a string of safety measures. They include slowing down trains that carry dangerous cargo.

“If it’s too fast through the high urban areas, it’s too fast through the low urban areas. And we require more cooperation from the rail. We have had incidents where they’ve been too secret,” Ugaste says.

David Votsis is deputy chief of the Milwaukee Fire Department’s special operations division. He says rail companies HAVE come through with emergency expertise and equipment.

“We are as well poised as anybody to handle this or any other type of incident. On speed dial on my phone, I have the emergency response managers for the Midwest region for both Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific….We have a training next week that’s being put on by Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific, the Chlorine Institute,” Votsis says.

Credit Susan Bence

The rail companies did not wish to be interviewed, but we were able to observe the training at the Canadian Pacific rail yard in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Nearly 80 people – firefighters from as close as St. Francis and as far as Wisconsin Rapids wear hard hats and safety glasses, rehearsed how to respond to leaking tank cars and spills of chlorine materials.

Darin Petersburs of Milwaukee is among the participants. He’s second in command with the specially trained team that would respond to rail disasters in the southern half of the state.

Credit Susan Bence

The northern team is based in Eau Claire.

Petersburs says learning in the field is far superior to video or training manuals, and credits public concern for cultivating more of this hands-on training.

“I’ve been to three or four of them in my 17 years with the HazMat team, two of those have been within the last year. Yeah, people are concerned and aware and rightfully so,” Petersburs adds, “I’ve never had to go to a rail incident, fortunately we’ve been pretty safe.”

Milwaukee’s Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Steve Fronk (far left) toured the emergency response training.
Credit Susan Bence

Steve Fronk, Milwaukee’s Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, says the city has more access to information from rail companies than in the past.

“As long as we move toward increasing the level of safety and awareness I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Fronk says.

Yet he admits, “I’ve got more concerns about things like the rails themselves. We’ve got an aging infrastructure in the rail industry as well as the automobile industry. I’d like to see more emphasis put on that.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration predicts 10 derailments per year, unless safety standards for trains carrying high hazard flammable materials are substantially tightened.

Credit Susan Bence