Responding Safely to Railroad Emergencies Locomotive Systems and

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					Responding Safely to Railroad Emergencies:
Locomotive Systems and Operation

What you don’t know could kill you when you respond to an emergency involving a railroad
locomotive. Consider that these massive machines each weigh 230 tons, and when two or more
are assembled together, they have the power to pull a mile-long string of rail cars weighing a
total of 12,000 tons. Our fondness for these mechanical giants started in our childhood with our
model trains. But for firefighters, responding to emergencies involving locomotives is anything
but child’s play. Below we provide an understanding of the design and function of modern
locomotives, their basic operational procedures, and inherent dangers.

Much of the information in this article is available as on-site training through the Operation
Lifesaver program and is used with its permission (Web site: This four-hour
training is delivered by local Operation Lifesaver personnel, the Railroad Safety for Emergency
Responders program, and covers a variety of information pertinent to responders who may be
called to railroad emergencies. However, this training is not available everywhere nationwide.

The locomotive’s sheer size, its horsepower, and the electrical voltages it uses deserve a great
deal of respect and some very careful action from emergency responders. It is no ordinary
vehicle, and response to an incident involving a locomotive is much more complicated than that
of other vehicle emergencies. The modern locomotive weighs 230 tons; is approximately 73 feet
long, 15 feet high, and 10 feet wide; and produces up to 6,000 horsepower. It is a rolling
electrical substation with a 74-volt starter system and may have 600 volts direct current (DC) or
30,000 volts alternating current (AC) or both (photo 1).
(1) One of the newest types of road locomotives, a General Electric CW44-AC, uses 30,000 volts AC to power the traction motors. (Photo courtesy of CSX
                                                     Click here to enlarge image

Additionally, it is a rolling hazmat with a full fuel tank capacity of 5,500 gallons of diesel fuel,
as well as 410 gallons of lubricating oil and 380 gallons of cooling water. A typical train may
have one or more locomotives at the head end of the train.

There are a variety of locomotive types. In this article, we will examine “road engines,” the
locomotives you usually see moving through your town. It is important to note that this article
will look only generally at the components and hazards common to most types of locomotives.
However, most have these same basic designs and inherent hazards. Note that the location, type,
and specific details of locomotive components depend on the unit type and the specific

Figure 1 from the Operation Lifesaver student manual shows the main parts of a modern
locomotive. The modern locomotive is powered by a large diesel engine, which, however, is not
directly connected to the drive wheels. The engine turns a generator or an alternator that provides
electric power (AC or DC) to the traction motors. This power delivery method gives the operator
much more precise control of speed, efficiency, and safety when operating the locomotive and
train. However, it does present a variety of problems and hazards for firefighters. To understand
the hazards and appropriate response actions, it is necessary to describe below in detail the
intricacies of the locomotive’s operation and systems.
                                               Figure 1. Main Components of a Diesel Locomotive
          Note the location of the diesel engine, traction motors, fuel tank, and electrical hazard areas. (Source: Operation Lifesaver.)
                                                  Click here to enlarge image

Train crew.A typical train crew consists of the locomotive engineer and the conductor. The
engineer operates the locomotive from the control stand that is in the front right side of the cab,
which is the engineer’s and the conductor’s home/office. The engineer is responsible for
operating the train; the conductor is responsible for the overall train and its operation.

The engineer must know his territory and be intimately familiar with the upgrades and
downgrades, curves, bridges, tunnels, speed limits and restrictions, grade crossings, and other
details of the track along which he is “driving” to safely move a mile-long train through it.
Engineers must qualify on their territory to ensure they are intimately familiar with all the
intricacies of those miles of track.

Although the engineer is the train’s “driver” much like that of a car or truck, we must also
remember that his vehicle may be one mile long and weighs about 12,000 tons. This requires
careful and constant attention. Although he does not have to steer left or right, the engineer is no
ordinary driver. He also must have the permission of his dispatch office to occupy that section of
track on which his train sits.

The conductor is in charge of the train and supervises all work relating to it, including delivering
and picking up cars and the train’s overall safety.

It is important to note that the train crew navigates using the mile markers on the railroad track.
As firefighters, we are very aware of our first-due area and are intimately familiar with village,
town, city, and state political subdivision boundary lines. A mile-long train may be in several
jurisdictions simultaneously. The crew will not be familiar with these boundaries; thus, there
may be some initial confusion regarding the exact location of the emergency. When an incident
occurs, the locomotive may be in one jurisdiction and the remainder of the train in another.
Firefighters should familiarize themselves with the railroad mile markers and crossing numbers
in their area to facilitate finding the exact location of an incident (photo 2).
(2) A standard crossing identification posted on crossing gates identifies the exact crossing number and its precise milepost marker and is understood by
                                                        all railroad personnel. (Photo by author.)
                                                         Click here to enlarge image

Access and controls. The train crew enters the locomotive by climbing steps or ladders at the
front and entering a door into the cab. Firefighters can and should access the cab the same way.
Inside the cab are the main electrical cabinets that make up the cab’s back wall. These cabinets
contain all the breaker panels for the locomotive’s electrical system. The control stand is in the
front right of the locomotive. Here you will find the throttle handle, reverser controller, and
dynamic and air brake controls for the locomotive and for the train.

Fuel system. Modern locomotives are diesel powered; the fuel tank is located under the
locomotive. The fill pipe is located on the side and is clearly marked. There may be a sight glass
or a digital gauge device indicating how much fuel remains in the tank. Located near the fuel fill
pipe is the fuel cutoff switch, one of three on the locomotive. If you hold this button in for
between three and six seconds, it will cut off fuel to the engine and shut it down. The other fuel
cutoff is in the cab; the third is on the opposite side of the locomotive (photos 3-6).

(3) An emergency fuel cutoff switch is located outside the locomotive on the fuel tank, near the fuel fill pipe, both colored red in this photo (circle). (Photos
                                                     3-6 courtesy of Federal Railroad Administration.)
                                             Click here to enlarge image


       (4) In this photo, the fuel tank gauge is located between the cutoff switch on the left and the fuel fill pipe on the right.
                                             Click here to enlarge image


        (5) An emergency fuel cutoff is also located in the locomotive on a panel just behind the engineer’s stand (circle).
                                             Click here to enlarge image

       (6) The emergency fuel cutoff switches must be held in for approximately three to six seconds to ensure shutdown of the diesel engine.
                                                   Click here to enlarge image


Since the tank is so close to the tracks and trackbed, it is frequently damaged by track debris.
Rocks, scrap metal, and other debris can puncture the tank. Handle a train fuel spill just as any
other diesel spill. Work with the engineer to determine how much fuel is left in the tank. Since
the fuel is diesel, a fuel with which we are all familiar, handle spills and fires as you would any
bulk incident.

                      Figure 2. Location of Major Locomotive Components, Fire Extinguisher, and Common Fire Locations
                                                        Source: Operation Lifesaver.
                                                   Click here to enlarge image

Diesel engine. Fuel is pumped up to the diesel engine, the locomotive’s primary power unit. This
is usually a 16-cylinder engine that generates up to 6,000 horsepower. It is important to note that
the turbocharger compresses air before it is injected into the engine and operates at temperatures
exceeding 2,000°F. Additionally, the fuel injectors operate at between 18,000 and 20,000 psi to
obtain maximum power. Consider these systems when planning an extinguishing strategy.
                                   Figure 3. Major Electrical Components of a Diesel/Electric Locomotive
            Firefighters should be cautious around these areas since high-voltage may be present. (Source: Operation Lifesaver.)
                                                Click here to enlarge image

Typical fire scenarios. Broken fuel lines spraying hot fuel on the turbocharger or exhaust
manifolds may cause fires occurring in and around the diesel engine. Fuel or lubricating oil leaks
may also cause a fire. Often, fuel will flow down into the engine sump and burn. Use standard
firefighting techniques for flammable liquid fires with special consideration for the electrical
hazards present. Dry chemical is the extinguishing agent of choice here.

                                               Figure 4. Locomotive Electical Hazard Zones
                                                       Source: Operation Lifesaver.
                                                Click here to enlarge image

Electrical system. The electrical system is really the heart and muscle of the locomotive. This
system drives and controls the locomotive and the train. On a large scale, the diesel drives the
alternator or generator that sends electric current to the traction motors contained in each truck
(wheel assembly). The diesel engine is not directly connected to the drive train. The newest
freight train locomotive models can produce up to 30,000 volts AC; thus, the earlier description
of an electrical substation on wheels.

Always consider a fire in a locomotive an electrical fire (Class C) until proven otherwise. It is
important to remember that the capacitors will retain huge amounts of current. Dry chemical
extinguishers are the agent of choice; obviously, water clearly is not appropriate. Work with the
train crew to determine the location and source of the fire. Never use a straight stream on an
electrical cabinet or one marked “Danger: High Voltage.” The result could be fatal.

The main electrical cabinet behind the engineer’s control station contains the main electrical
panels and is the backbone of the electrical system. However, there are significant electrical
components all around the locomotive as shown in Figure 3.

Cooling system.The cooling system is similar to the radiator in your car, except this one is a bit
bigger with more than 300 gallons of environmentally friendly coolant. Although it may be
colored green and look like automotive antifreeze, it is not. Locomotive cooling system fluid is
not environmentally hazardous. To prevent freezing, locomotive engines are kept running. To
prevent freezing if the engine is shut down, the engine coolant may be discharged on the track
bed. Remember that this fluid is not antifreeze and is not a hazardous material. Again, the sheer
size and scale of the locomotive is important to remember. For example, the three radiator
cooling fans each have 25-horsepower motors with 48-inch fan diameters.

Braking system. The braking system supplies air pressure to the air brakes for all the cars of the
train. These brake hoses that you can see hanging between train cars contain 80 psi of air
pressure. Brake systems on the locomotives contain 140 psi. Obvious care should be given to
these high-pressure systems.

Working around equipment this size can be very dangerous. Here are a few safety reminders
from both Operation Lifesaver and CSX Transportation that we should all keep in mind and
possibly make a part of our standard operating procedures (SOPs) when responding to railroad
emergencies or working around the railroad right-of-way.

      Always notify the railroad before going on its equipment or property.
      Before boarding any locomotive or railroad equipment (cars), ensure it is secured from
      Always do a thorough size-up and develop a solid safety plan prior to taking any action
       dealing with railroad equipment.
      Expect a train at any time: “Anytime is train time.”
      Remember, you may not hear a train approaching.
      Always face the equipment, if possible, to detect any movement.
      Use safety officers as spotters to look up and down the tracks for oncoming trains, even if
       trains have been “stopped.”
      Do not walk between the rails—although it is convenient, it is also the most dangerous
       place to walk.
      Do not step on the top of the rails; they may be slippery.
      Walk alongside the tracks at least six feet away from them; this will keep you safe from
       oncoming trains.
      Do not step on car couplers or draw bars attached to the couplers, since they will move in
       and out during train movement.
       When walking around railcars, always keep at least 30 feet away from the end of the car
        in case the train should start moving. This gives you time to get out of the way.
       Air brake systems have between 80 and 120 psi air pressure in them.


The safety record of America’s railroads is remarkably good. But no matter how safe we all try
to be, accidents and mishaps do happen. Armed with the knowledge in this article, you can
respond safely and effectively to railroad emergencies that may involve locomotives.

Authors’ note: Thanks to Operation Lifesaver and CSX Transportation for their cooperation and
assistance with this article.

JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a
training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a CSX
Hazmat Sentinel (a person trained to provide expert assistance at railroad hazmat incidents), has
a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer
for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point,
New York.

PAUL WATSON is a supervisor in the Public Safety and Environmental Division of CSX
Transportation (CSXT) and has been employed with railroads for 32 years. He was certified by
Penn State University in 1998 as an instructor and then was promoted to training supervisor.
Trained as a CSX Hazmat Sentinel, he frequently responds to hazardous materials incidents
involving railroads. Watson has presented Operation Lifesaver training for the past three years
and is the assistant chief of the Selkirk (NY) Volunteer Fire Department.

LOU FRANGELLA is the public affairs and safety supervisor for CSX Transportation (CSXT),
where he has worked for 31 years. Based in Selkirk, New York, he coordinates and serves on the
boards of Operation Lifesaver in eastern New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Frangella is
certified as a director of safety by the National Transportation Managers Institute and is a
certified presenter for Operation Lifesaver and Railroad Safety for Emergency Responders.