Derailments Cause Campus Concerns


Several CSX Transportation trains travel through Pembroke daily past Mary Livermore Library, Old Main and the Oxendine Science Building. PN Photo/Anayah L. Peterson

By Anayah L. Peterson, Editor-in-Chief

The last week of March saw major derailments in six states following the Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio, and April just saw a derailment and fire in Maine. Many Americans are anxious about potential derailments. The campus community is unsettled about trains that roll by daily. Camille McDougald, a residential student, said it makes her feel unsafe to live close to active railroad that sometimes carries hazardous materials. “I see it as one of those incidents that make you say, ‘Wow, that could have happened in my small town’ because it is very much possible. I just hope it doesn’t. In fact, I don’t feel great in general,” McDougald said.

Railway at UNCP

The railroad located in front of adjacent to Old Main, the Mary Livermore Library and the Oxendine Science Building is very active with two road gate arms. The commuter parking lot in between those street crossings has two pedestrian crossings for students to use for travel on campus but no gates. There are no signs at these crossings for pedestrians. Pedestrians cross the railroad tracks in areas that are not designated crossings. Shawnie Henderson, a Sodexo employee at UNCP, said she feels that Pembroke Police and campus police should take more responsibility and action to making the crossing at the railway safer. She has a son who crosses the railway tracks daily. UNCP Chancellor Dr. Robin Cummings said the school always worries about the safety of their students and that the tracks are close to campus. “Sometimes people do cross in other areas on the tracks. We certainly encourage folks to cross only in that area (the pedestrian cross walk paths) because that is where the engineers and the train folks are focused on,” Cummings said. Tabitha Cain, Assistant to the Chancellor for Communications and Research, said the university does not cover derailment in the freshman orientation. Cummings said the school had conversations with CSX and the Town of Pembroke about safety improvements. He said there was a time that they were talking about closing some of the crossings beyond the Burger King area around downtown Pembroke. He said the university and the town stopped talking to CSX about the plans a few years ago. Cummings said that the school has a great relationship with CSX. During the commencement ceremonies at UNCP, CSX stops all trains from traveling through until commencement is completed. UNCP has a plan for if a train derailed from its tracks near the campus, which is planned by the UNCP Environmental, Health and Safety Office. The UNCP Safety Handbook does not have a detailed plan and only mentions derailment by using it as an example of a shelter-in-place on page 24.

Hazardous Materials

The Pine Needle noted placards on some trains passing by campus. Some of the trains contained tankers carrying materials including methanol, corrosive liquid, liquefied petroleum gas, nitrobenzene, nickel oxide, class three flammable liquid and elevated temperature liquid (HOT). Cameo Chemicals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a website, which can be used to identify chemicals by placard numbers on tankers or by name.

Methanol is a colorless liquid with a faintly sweet pungent odor like ethyl alcohol. It is highly flammable and can explode in the container.

A corrosive liquid can be toxic when inhaled and may include liquids such as chromic acid, and sulfuric acid.

Liquefied petroleum gas is a mixture of several gases (propane, isobutane and other hydrocarbons) that can rupture violently and combust if the containers are exposed to heat. It is highly flammable and used in lighter fluids.

Nitrobenzene is a pale yellow to dark brown liquid with a flash point of 190 degrees. It is toxic by inhalation and by skin absorption as the chemical is poisonous. When combusted it gives off toxic oxides of nitrogen.

Class three flammable liquids are flammable liquids with flash points of no more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. CSX Transportation does not allow the public to know the schedule of the trains due to safety precautions, nor does the public know what is carried on the trains until the trains pass by. The trains have placards that can be used to identify materials in the rail cars.


The university has a plan for hazardous chemical spills through its Disaster Preparedness Plan. A campus hazardous material response would begin with a report to the University Police Department by calling 911 or to the campus Building Facility Manager by dialing 6235. Jennifer McCarrel, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer said the university’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is activated in an emergency to coordinate their response with local, state and potential federal officials. McCarrel said in the scenario of a train derailment, “The role of UNCP would play varies based on the specific details of the crash. Responses could range from simply rerouting traffic near Old Main to a full evacuation of campus.” In the event of a derailment, the incident commander would communicate with the rail company to determine if or what hazardous materials may be involved base identification markings on the placards on individual railcars. Michael Bullard, the Director of Environmental, Health and Safety, said the school received grants from the Robeson County Emergency Management Office for a 2022 tabletop exercise on Oct. 3 and a fullscale exercise on Oct. 15. Exercise participants included Robeson County Emergency Management, State Emergency Management, UNCP Emergency Management, EHS Office, UNCP Campus Police, the Hazardous Materials Regional Response Team and the local fire, police, 911 dispatch and EMS first responders. Both exercises were the same, with the scenario of a train striking a bus carrying a visiting football team. The train had hazardous materials that leaked and spilled from the crash. Participants worked on the discussion involving how to deal with injured or deceased victims. They also reviewed when to evacuate an area versus a shelter-in-place. Participants also learned how to identify, contain and dispose of spilled hazardous materials. “All participants worked well together and it was a well-received training event that reminded all participating emergency services personnel of the dangers involved in responding to a hazardous materials incident as well as how truly dangerous railroad crossings are,” Bullard said. The university uses Brave Alert, an emergency notification system, to deploy text and email messages to students, faculty and staff. Members of the university may also enroll into LiveSafe, an application that notifies users about current warnings. Audible warnings are transmitted through UNCP’s loudspeaker system and internal speakers. Members of the university may also receive a phone call if they are registered to receive them. When it comes to safety, “you should be worried,” said Gerri Songer from La Coalition, a Campaign Liaison. She said that the school should make sure to include the four corners plan. The plan represents four different routes for four directions that the wind could spread the spill material too. There needs to be four different safety evacuation zones and a plan for movement if the wind were to change direction. She worries that the public isn’t aware about train safety and said they need to be informed about it. “They’re using air brakes which is old technology that isn’t even the 21st century,” Songer said. Locomotives are equipped with air brakes or electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. A problem with systems that are strictly air brakes is that separation of the hoses connected to it can cause loss of air pressure. Losing the force needed to slow or stop a train.


U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023 on March 1. The bill is designed to enhance the safety of requirements for trains transporting hazardous materials and for other purposes. The bill would broaden the requirements for materials on a railcar to be classified as a high-hazard flammable train. The Department of Transportation would also regulate new requirements for rail carriers carrying hazardous materials to provide the state emergency response commissioners with advance notice and information about the materials. If the bill were to pass, the Secretary of Transportation would be able to implement and modify new regulations for brake safety and operations on a train. It would be effective no later than one year after the bill is enacted. Fritz Edler, Railroad Workers United Special Safety Representative said towns can’t place laws on banning hazardous materials because railroad companies are protected by International Commerce Law. “All the railroad companies run on the same idea to spend little money on the operation,” said Elder of his concern for the safety of railroad workers . When following a major incident on social media like East Palestine, Ohio, the smaller incidents are overlooked. According to the dataset table by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, from 2018-2022, there is an average of 1,018 derailments yearly, yet most are minor, such as the derailment at Lexington, N.C. in March. According to the dataset table by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, from 2018-2022, there is an average of 1,018 derailments yearly. “The students need to be really aware of the train, be cautious. It’s not to be taken lightly. The crossing is there for a very good reason, it’s designed to protect you and to make sure that you are paying attention to your surroundings,” Cummings said. He also said it is crucial for the locomotive driving the train to pay attention to that area. Students should obey the safety measures in place to ensure safety when crossing the railway tracks.

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