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Big loads, small towns: Firefighters along TC & W line train on the train

Bob Suko, general manager of operations for the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, in orange shirt, led a training session Thursday evening in Sacred Heart for firefighters with the Sacred Heart, Danube and Renville departments. For most of the firefighters, it was their first opportunity to learn about the controls, valves and other equipment aboard trains. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SACRED HEART — Six days a week, engineers with the Twin Cities & Western Railroad guide locomotives and cargo through two dozen small towns on company tracks running from Appleton in western Minnesota to Interstate 494 in the Twin Cities.

If things go wrong, it is volunteers with fire departments in small towns —  Sacred Heart, Danube and Renville among them —  who will answer the call for help.

This week, the TC & W answered a call from the volunteers with the fire departments in the three Renville County communities.

“It’s really simple,’’ said Bob Suko, general manager of operations for TC & W as he welcomed individual firefighters from the departments to the driver’s seat of a locomotive. Suko showed them how to operate a train, so that in an emergency they can do quickly what needs to be done.

By the end of the Thursday evening session, the volunteers knew how to start or stop a train in an emergency, decouple cars, and flip the switches and turn the valves that control everything from the diesel fuel to high-voltage electricity that is part of every locomotive.

Firefighter Scott Thompson, who serves as training officer for the Sacred Heart department, had made the call to the TC & W.

Like many people, Thompson has seen the news accounts of fiery explosions from oil train derailments in North Dakota and Canada.

But he also is well-aware of what’s going on right here. Train traffic of all types is on the increase, and trains are carrying more cargo like ethanol and propane than ever before.

“They jumped all over it,’’ said Thompson of his call to the TC & W requesting the training session. He noted that most firefighters — himself included — had no previous opportunities for hands-on training involving trains.

A state law that went into effect July 1 requires that railroads carrying hazardous materials offer training sessions for fire departments along their routes once every three years.

Suko said the railroad welcomes the opportunity to acquaint the volunteers with the trains, for all the reasons that motivated Thompson. Formerly with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. in Willmar, Suko joined the TC & W in 2005.

The TC & W did not pull a single unit train that year. Last year, it hauled 181. TC & W trains carry ethanol produced at plants in Granite Falls and Winthrop to markets outside the region. They also haul propane into the region to serve homes, farms and businesses.

And of course, the trains haul large and heavy loads of everything from corn and soybeans to canned vegetables and fertilizers.

Should an accident occur, train crews are instructed to leave the train for safety. It’s up to the responding emergency personnel to take it from there. “We let the professionals deal with it,’’ said Suko.

The railroad has held similar training sessions with departments in Hamburg and Glencoe to provide emergency responders with hands-on opportunities to become acquainted with the locomotives and cars they carry.

The TC & W also operates the Minnesota Prairie Line that runs from Hanley Falls to Norwood-Young America, and is looking to offer training opportunities for the small-town departments along this rural route as well.

Suko and Thompson said they would like to see more training with multiple departments. In most cases, any accident involving a train will likely require the response of multiple departments, they noted. A typical tanker car will hold 28,000 gallons of ethanol, and 80 of the cars can be strung together on a unit train.

No date is yet set, but the railroad and fire departments are looking to hold a simulated disaster training exercise in the future.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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