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Chemical explosion at world’s largest railyard causes evacuations

19 September 2023

Several towns in western Nebraska, US were evacuated on 14 September after an explosion involving chemicals in a shipping container at the world’s largest railyard produced toxic fumes. The incident at Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte led to the evacuation of a one-mile radius as well as the closure of nearby highways.

Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard - Image: Shutterstock
Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard - Image: Shutterstock

The explosion occurred around midday in a container on a railcar. No one was reported to be injured by the blast and no train cars were derailed as a result. The cause of the explosion is unknown, however the North Platte Fire Department said that a fire involving chemicals had erupted and was producing toxic smoke.

The toxic fumes began to spread away from the railcar following the explosion which led to authorities ordering the evacuation of nearby towns. The nearby city of North Platte, which is located around 230 miles (370km) northeast of Denver, Colorado, has a population of around 24,000.

The North Platte Fire Department said in a statement that the fire had been contained and extinguished by 17:30 local time. A spokesperson for the railyard told reporters that one of the containers had been carrying perchloric acid, a substance used in a variety of food and medicine.

The Bailey Yard covers 4.45 square miles (11.5 km2) in total and is over 8 miles (13 km) in length and 2 miles (3.2 km) wide at its widest point. Railroad officials said that Union Pacific was able to keep part of the yard operational during the incident with the whole railyard returning to full operation once the fire had been extinguished.  

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it had been monitoring the incident, however it hadn’t started an investigation. The Federal Railroad Administration said officials from the agency had visited the scene and had been monitoring the response.

Safety on US railroads has become a major issue in recent months, primarily after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio in February. Around 50 railcars, many carrying hazardous materials, derailed and caused a major fire that prompted the evacuation of nearby towns. Concerns about the environmental impact of the derailment still remain. In March, the NTSB announced that it had opened a special investigation of railway operator Norfolk Southern Railway’s organisation and safety culture following a series of recent safety incidents.

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