Freight Trains and Chemical Spills: How to Prepare Your Business

Freight train chemical spill
At the beginning of this month, a train carrying the flammable, toxic chemical acrylonitrile partly derailed and caught fire near Knoxville, TN, forcing 5,000 people to vacate the area. 

A few days later, July 6, marked the two-year anniversary of the oil train derailment and subsequent explosions in Lac-M├ęgantic, QC, which killed 47 and forced 2,000 people to evacuate their homes.

While some business continuity planners focus on risk assessments for natural disasters of hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, man-made disasters such as train derailments and chemical spills can’t be ignored.

The Risks of Transporting Chemicals by Rail


Unfortunately, the risks of rail-transported hazardous materials are prevalent in certain areas of the U.S. and Canada. In Washington state, for example, up to 17 trains carry nearly 1 million gallons of crude oil through Spokane and other counties. 

While en route to oil refineries, one or two trains pass daily through Seattle’s antiquated downtown rail tunnel. If a spill or explosion were to occur, the city’s emergency managers warned that such an event would have a catastrophic effect on the city’s citizens, buildings and environment. 

This threat has become even more pronounced in recent years, with federal data revealing that more oil was spilled during U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in nearly four decades.

Preparing for a Hazmat Catastrophe


Though the U.S. government recently coordinated with Canada to pass a rule for improving the safe transport of flammable liquids by rail, it’s still important that you take the following steps to protect your business and employees if you’re located near an industrial freight line.

Plan for an Alternate Facility

If a spill or explosion occurs in your region, you need to have a plan for alternate work arrangements. Even if your facility is left untouched, city evacuations can prevent you from accessing your building.

Some common backup facility options are Business Recovery Centers (BRCs), Mobile Recovery Centers (MRCs), modular buildings or rented office space. Because hazmat disasters happen with no notice and will likely affect other businesses in your region, you should consider contracting space ahead of time rather than relying on a first-come, first-served solution.

To minimize downtime, the facility should ideally be equipped with voice and data connectivity infrastructure and office technology preconfigured to your specifications. Also make sure the space can be available within your recovery time objectives. BRCs, for example, can be available in mere hours after a disaster declaration, and MRCs can be delivered within 24-48 hours. The availability of modular buildings and office space will vary.

Location is another key factor in selecting a facility. Choose a facility too far away, and your employees might not be able to travel to that location. Opt for a facility too close, and you run the risk of the building being affected by the same disaster that shuts your facility’s doors. The benefit of an MRC-based mobile recovery solution is that the unit can be deployed in a location of your choice without having to obtain permits from the city, as you would with a modular building.

Prepare for Loss of Data and Hardware


In the aftermath of a spill or explosion, your business could face restricted access to or even a total loss of critical IT infrastructure components. These assets could include servers and hard drives; on-premise traditional data repositories, such as tape; and end-user laptops and desktop computers. To continue business operations, you need access to your entire IT environment, including data, applications, operating systems and configurations.

Today, there are several available cloud solutions that give you the flexibility to recover your environment from anywhere with an Internet connection. For example, by using a secure cloud-based vaulting and recovery solution in conjunction with infrastructure as a service, you can spin up your environment at time of disaster without having to reconfigure your servers, PCs and other hardware.

To offset the loss of office technology, desktop as a service (DaaS) can give users access to their desktop configurations from any device. Some DaaS providers can supply backup technology as well.

You might also choose to use a colocation solution to protect your environment — particularly if you contract a BRC that offers on-site rack space. If you go this route, make sure the hosting facility is located close enough to your primary facility to address cost and latency concerns, but far enough away to ensure there’s not a common risk between geographies.

Conduct BC/DR Testing and Employee Safety Drills 

Once you have a plan in place, it’s important to test it to identify interdependencies among your systems and processes, reveal differences between production and recovered environments, and make sure your staff members know what’s expected of them.


You should also conduct routine safety drills so your employees will know what to do in case a spill or explosion occurs during business hours.

Is your company susceptible to the risks of hazardous materials transported by rail? If so, what steps are you taking to prepare?