Could a train derailment happen here? Suburban officials say longer trains would make it likely

It’s been six weeks since a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

The safety and environmental shock waves from this accident continue to reverberate across the country, with many asking ‘could that happen here in the Chicago area?’

In a Fox 32 special report, Dane Placko finds out some local leaders say the odds are high.

"I started to think what would happen if that happened in downtown Elgin," said Elgin mayor David Kaptain.

"This would impact roughly 30,000 or 40,000 people in downtown (Elgin). They would be within the same zone of I guess from the smoke and the hazards that came from that," Kaptain said.

About 5,000 people were evacuated last month following the East Palestine train derailment.

"My previous career I was a chemist, so I know about vinyl chloride. I know about some of the other chemicals that were involved," Kaptain said.

Just like the Ohio derailment, water contamination is also a concern for Elgin. This time it would affect hundreds of thousands of people.

"Elgin is the only community that has the rail tracks this close to the Fox River," Kaptain said. "That created an issue for me. Most of those cars I saw in the derailment in Ohio would probably end up in the Fox River."

If Elgin's water supply was contaminated, Kaptain says that would affect not only its 115,000 residents but another roughly 400,000 who live in nearby towns and also get their water from the Fox River.

"Most people are concerned. I think it’s about now I think they are starting to see the issues that we’ve been facing for well over a year," Kaptain said.

Kaptain is concerned about a repeat of the Ohio train derailment happening here because of a proposed merger between the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads. If approved, it would make freight trains about two miles long and increase the number of trains passing through every day.

"They said well you’re gonna have eight eleven. Now we are hearing from other sources that it could go to 18. That for us would be almost a constant issue for traffic flow for our downtown," Kaptain said.

Concerns about a repeat are also high in Itasca for a couple of reasons.

One is the number of people who live along the tracks. Unlike Ohio, the population of Itasca is twice as big and many live along the rail line.

"This is an urban area. For years, the federal and state government have encouraged and put grant money into encouraging all of these mayors, all of these communities pursue transit-oriented development projects. Basically put people living along this train line and now you’re going to run bomb cars through here? That makes no sense," said Itasca Village Administrator Carie Anne Ergo.

Ergo is the chairman of the coalition to stop the merger between the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern rail lines.

"We would end up having to evacuate our entire community. There wouldn’t be one business or one resident left. That’s what the reality is here," Ergo said.

Egro says 10,000 people live in Itasca and another 25,000 work there.

"Why is this even being considered is what we’ve been saying all along," Ergo said.

Another big concern for Itasca and many other towns along the rail line that runs from Bensenville to Elgin is how first responder times would be affected.

In Itasca, 60% of its residents live on one side of the tracks.

A two-mile train would essentially block all four railroad crossings in the town at the same time.

"To this call right here, if we had one of these houses in here, it takes about a minute and 20 seconds to get there," said Itasca Fire District Chief Jack Schneidwind.

Schneidwind showed FOX 32 the route they would have to take to get to that same address if all the railroad crossings were blocked by a freight train, derailed or not.

"We'd actually have to go into Addison, which is where we're headed now and we're actually going to leave the town of Itasca, enter into Addison and then we're gonna get on the expressway and go all the way back north about a mile past where the incident is and then we're gonna have to weave our way back down," said Schneidwind. 

That would make it a 12-minute ride instead of just over a minute.

"Brain cells start to die within four to six minutes, so it's imperative that we are on the scene within four minutes, four to six minutes to be able to start CPR on somebody and to be able to transport them, start care right away, and a fire spreads — it doubles every minute," said Schneidwind.

In Bensenville, the police department there is in a similar situation as the Itasca Fire Department where a two-mile freight train could block all of their railroad crossings at the same time. Making response times even longer than in Itasca.

"Our police station where we're at right now is on one side of the tracks. If we have to get over just to the other side of the tracks, we’re going to have to go all the way to Route 83. So you’re looking a few miles out of the way where it would take 15 to 20 minutes compared to 2 to 3 minutes," said Bensenville Village President Frank DeSimone.

Traffic is already heavy in Bensenville because of how close it is to O'Hare airport and all the trucks that unload the current number of trains.

The merger means more trains which can also mean more trucks on the road.

"Right now, I believe we have 383 trucks per day. And now it’s going to go well over 690 trucks per day. So now you have stopped trucks at railroad crossings. They give off emissions that now affect my residents who have breathing problems, lung issues," DeSimone said.

Without the merger, DeSimone says Bensenville residents are already waiting 20 minutes for a freight train crossing.

With longer trains, he says it isn’t a question of if an Ohio train derailment happens here, but when.

"At some point, with these longer, heavier trains, tracks that are not designed for it, railroad companies that are skimping on their employees on those trains, it’s going to be a recipe for disaster," said DeSimone.

Ohio state senator Michael Rulli's district includes where the train derailment happened in East Palestine.

He recently wrote a letter to the National Surface Transportation Board stating "reviews of the merger point to a substantially elevated risk of collision."

He also states he "cannot, given what has happened in his (our) community, support any action that would further undermine rail safety," as he believes the CP-KC merger would.

Fox 32 Chicago has also learned in 2021, there were 29 incidents in Illinois where hazardous materials were released from rail cars without any of them derailing.

Nearly half of them were in the Chicago area.