The sound of a train horn can be heard daily as trains cross Church Street, Williamson Avenue and Oak Street crossings in Elon. The town of Elon’s history can be traced back to Mill Point and later the Elon College train depot, which was built in 1881 and closed in 1961. Frequent train traffic through the community does not come without its hazards, which has led local emergency departments to enact plans in case of an emergency.

A Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals under the name 32N, traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. This resulted in a fire that later led to evacuations, which have since been lifted. 

The track that runs through Elon is part of the “NC-Line” and is operated by Norfolk Southern and owned by the North Carolina Railroad Company.

The derailment in East Palestine released dangerous chemicals from the train cars into the community, including vinyl chloride — a colorless gas used to build plastic products that can also cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

While the environmental impact from this derailment is still being determined, dead wildlife was found in the area and caused concerns from the community in East Palestine regarding personal health effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday that Norfolk Southern has been ordered to clean up all “contaminated soil and water resources” and to reimburse the agency for cleanup services among other orders. 

“Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a press release. 

There has been an increase in the train accident rate for the railroad in the last four years, according to a Norfolk Southern presentation in 2022. The accident also comes as Norfolk Southern is transitioning into Precision Scheduled Railroading operations scheduling system, which has been leading to fewer, but longer, freight trains. 

Joseph Navin | Elon News Network
Assistant Chief Charles Walker of the Town of Elon Fire Department is seen inside Station Eight on South Williamson Avenue on Feb. 19.

Charles Walker currently serves as the assistant fire chief for the town of Elon Fire Department. Walker has been working for the department for over 25 years. He discussed current emergency plans and local railway concerns with Elon News Network.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

How does Norfolk Southern notify you when trains carrying hazardous cargo pass through town?

“We have as far as them notifying us when there’s certain types of chemicals coming through our areas. It’s kind of a broad notification. … It’s sent out to the emergency services in the area that’s going to be impacted by that.” 

Have you ever had any concerns about freight trains moving through Elon with hazardous cargoes? 

“Absolutely. We think about that a lot as a matter of fact, because not only does it affect campus, but it affects our whole town because we’re a small town. Our fire stations are relatively close to the railroad tracks, our town halls, relatively close to the police department. A lot of our resources are close here. So if we have a large-scale event that’s right here downtown. It’s going to affect us on many different levels, as emergency management for the town here, but also for the community trying to provide ongoing services in our community.”

What types of cargoes cause concern from first responders? 

“There’s so many different kinds, but it really depends on the volume. It is because some of this in smaller volumes is very manageable. It’s when it gets into larger volumes that it might not be as manageable. And there’s different kinds. It could be a liquid, it could be a powder, or it could be a gas type product coming through. So when they [Norfolk Southern] notify that and they do very well with notifying us ahead of time, that they notify us 30 days in advance, and they’ll let us know and our regional response team hazmat team, they’re notified.”

Have you encountered any railroad-related issues in your tenure here in Elon?

“We have had some vehicles hit on the tracks here, we’ve had pedestrians struck on the tracks. So even though those aren’t derailments, those are still potential incidents where the train has had to stop. 

A boxcar came through here … in the past four or five years, and dropped a white powder substance and it went down the length of the tracks, and so we weren’t sure what that was. So we had to respond to that notifying Norfolk Southern. They were very quick to respond back to us. And basically that was a non-lethal substance that had leaked from a car that they were aware of. It was basically baking soda. So they were aware of it, but we were able to make notification to our local emergency management and state emergency management, then Norfolk Southern, and then they’re emergency management people were quick to get back to us to get notification of it because again, if we weren’t able to recognize that or be able to identify the product in a hurry, we were going to have to potentially shut down this area until we could make a determination of what it was.” 

What types of training does the fire department take part in to prepare for emergencies?

“We usually participate in two different types: tabletop scenarios which we sit around and we go over, either a real scenario, or we’ll come up with our own scenario and so, that’ll usually be put on by the state or at a local emergency management level. 

We also take a remote location and do a hazmat situation. A derailment, if that’s what we want to do, and actually bring resources in and let everybody kind of go through their roles. We’ve also worked with Norfolk Southern on doing some train safety classes. We’ve gone to Raleigh and Durham, and they’ve got training set up there and we would actually go down and do some hands-on training with them with locomotive safety and identifying different types of rail cars, tank cars.”