One man’s hobby out of control

Volunteer fire fighter’s safety train takes hazmat training to new level

CarolinaFireJournal - Amy Clymer and Heather Rose
Amy Clymer and Heather Rose
07/25/2010 -

When a hazardous materials incident involving rail transportation occurs, local first responders are often first on the scene. Since these incidents are infrequent, most responders will only experience a couple hazmat incidents in their careers. Since most of the damage in a hazmat incident typically occurs in the first five minutes, it is imperative that the responders know precisely how to react to the situation.


“The Safety Train isn’t a job... I don’t get paid for it. It’s a hobby out of control.” — John O’Neill

One way responders can gain necessary hands-on experiences is through simulated drills and exercises using The Firefighters Education and Training Foundation’s Safety Train

The Safety Train, created by John O’Neill of Sherborn, MA, is comprised of multiple railcars which have been specially outfitted for training purposes.  The train is often used in conjunction with nationwide events presented by TRANSCAER® (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response), a voluntary national outreach effort that focuses on assisting communities prepare for and respond to a possible hazardous materials transportation incidents by bringing the chemical and transportation industry experts into local communities to provide free transportation and chemical safety training to emergency personnel.  

Even though the Foundation’s Safety Train is considered the largest “training train,” it was not the first of its kind. For decades, rail-based units have been training first responders on how to deal with railroad tank car accidents. As early as 1987, chemical companies DuPont and Rohm and Haas were taking specially outfitted rail cars across the country to train first responders to deal with hazmat incidents pertaining to their products.

DuPont and Rohm and Haas were definitely on to something. Their mobile railcar training programs were quickly followed by similar programs sponsored by the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (formerly Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association); other chemical companies, such as AMOCO and Chevron; and several Class I railroads.

Within two years of launching its program, DuPont added two additional sets of railcars to the initial “CAER Car.” The cars were designed to educate first responders about potential leak points and demonstrate the domes and valve fittings used in the tank cars that transport both high- and low-pressure commodities by rail.  Since 1988, DuPont has delivered one- and two-week emergency response training programs — at no cost to the trainees — to more than 96,000 first responders in 22 countries on three continents. The company has spent more than $75 million on its program over the years, according to Raymond Beaudry, Director Global Emergency Preparedness, Planning, Training, and Response, who runs DuPont’s program.

While chemical companies were addressing the need for training programs from a manufacturers’ standpoint, O‘Neill, a volunteer firefighter, developed the Safety Train after seeing the need for such a program first-hand.

Previously the general manager of a company that cleaned up rail accidents, as well as a lieutenant in his hometown fire department, O’Neill’s experience had shown that while firefighters are usually the first ones to respond to rail hazmat incidents, they often have limited training in the field, and even less on-the-job experience because the incidents are so rare.


» Promotes safe transportation and handling of hazardous materials

» Educates and assists communities near major transportation routes about hazardous materials

» Aids community emergency response planning for hazardous material transportation incidents

Assistant Fire Chief Tim Butters (City of Fairfax, VA), Chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ (IAFC) Hazardous Materials Committee, explained, “What  often challenges firefighters is not having accurate and timely information about the specific hazardous materials that may be involved in the incident, and not being familiar with railroad containers and other specialized equipment. The Safety Train program allows firefighters to train with the actual railroad equipment, and provides access to the expertise of industry, which will help them be better prepared for incidents.” 

“Whether it’s a house fire or a railroad incident, the most critical time of any incident is during the first five to 10 minutes,” O’Neill said in a recent interview aboard a revamped CSX rail car at Union Station in Washington, D.C. As such, the actions those first on the scene take, “will determine whether you have a successful outcome or a disastrous outcome,” he added. “By the time a professional hazmat team can arrive, the damage has already been done.”

According to O’Neill, it is important for responders from different agencies in a single area to train together and know each other outside of an emergency. Knowing in advance how each person works will help if an actual emergency does arise.

To make his point, O’Neill staged a train wreck in his hometown. In 1994, he simulated a derailment with a tank car leaking hazardous material known as the “Sherborn’s Great Train Wreck.” No aspect of the drill was too great or small: smoke machines were brought in to simulate a real wreck; school buses came, filled with children made up to look like they were injured; water was pumped into the town — they had to dig up a state highway to do it — to help firefighters learn how to deal with a possible derailment of this magnitude.

The train used for the exercise included an engine, three tank cars, two boxcars and a caboose. O’Neill pitched the idea to local fire departments and other participants in the event by telling them, “You can have a simulated wreck or a real one.”

In the end, he trained scores of firefighters from more than a dozen towns, with nearly 250 people on site; some received training and some just watching the spectacle. The event was such a success that O’Neill decided the same kind of training should be made available to first responders across the country. What better way to hit the rails than with real trains?

Initially, getting backing from sponsors was not easy.  At first, O’Neill paid for the trains himself, and then through fundraisers for the next few years.

“The sponsors didn’t think it would happen,” he said, because he was a volunteer firefighter with no corporate backing. He admits that people thought he was crazy, and that they eventually gave in “because they thought I’d go away.”

The tactic worked.

O’Neill’s 1994 event, which was staged with borrowed corn oil cars, has since developed into a permanent program with more than 45 cars in five trains moving across the U.S. Also, the Foundation, in partnership with CSX Transportation, operates the world’s only SWAT train, which includes five passenger cars.

Skip Elliott, Vice President of CSX Transportation, which uses O’Neill’s cars for TRANSCAER training events, explained, “Thanks largely in part to many years of hard work by the chemical industry and the railroads, hazardous materials incidents involving rail transportation are an infrequent occurrence.  Nonetheless, training emergency responders on how to safely respond to a rail emergency using the Safety Train benefits everyone. It gives firefighters and hazmat teams the opportunity to train in a real-life setting using actual rail equipment and tank cars. It affords community emergency responders the ability to train alongside railroad emergency responders for the purpose of working together to resolve an emergency. It also provides emergency responders in the many communities we operate in with better insight into CSX, the railroad industry, and our commitment to public safety.”

“Practical, real-world training is what O’Neill’s program has brought to the party.” — Tim Butters

Today, Elliott said, “The Safety Train and the Foundation provide a tremendous service to CSX. It is a partnership that has grown and evolved over the years so we can provide some of the best and most sophisticated railroad hazmat training available to emergency responders. And, we can do it in their towns and cities and in the actual rail yards that they might be called upon to respond.”

Three years ago, The Dow Chemical Company turned to O’Neill when it was looking to develop its own hands-on training program.

“The Foundation was really the number one resource we could locate,” said Rollie Shook, ES&S Emergency Response Expertise Leader at The Dow Chemical Company, the current chairman of the National TRANSCAER Task Group and a former firefighter in Midland, MI.

The Dow team met with O’Neill and communicated their requirements for a training program. O’Neill integrated their plans and requests, and renovated six cars for the company, which have since been used to train more than 3,000 people across the country.

According to Shook, rather than having to imagine what a real train car accident might look like or feel like, trainees can climb on the cars and truly experience them.

“Practical, real-world training is what O’Neill’s program has brought to the party,” said IAFC’s Tim Butters. “The Safety Train provides an opportunity for firefighters to gain valuable experience using the actual railroad equipment they are likely to encounter. Fire departments simply would not have access to these types of resources if it were not for this program.”

The Safety Train program has grown with the help of equipment donated by ACF Industries, Amtrak, ARI Leasing, Conrail, CSX Transportation, David Joseph Company, The Dow Chemical Company, GATX Corporation, GE Railcar Services, Metra Railroad, New Jersey Transit, TTX Corporation and Union Tank Car Company. The trains include tank cars, as well as flatbed cars equipped with high- and low-pressure valves that are used to show firefighters how to cap off leaks, and how to determine what kind of leak there is so they can know whether it is safe to even approach a leaking car.

The trains also have classroom cars, each of which is an old boxcar revamped with such care and attention that evidence of the cars’ former lives can barely be detected. With vaulted ceilings painted to look like blue skies, hanging and recessed light fixtures, crown and picture molding, and ceiling fans, the classroom cars look more like showrooms than schoolhouses. The classroom cars are outfitted with heat, air conditioning, sound, video, and projection equipment. More than 20 trainees can sit comfortably in a classroom car at once.

“John has an overabundance of passion to make sure first responders have the best-in-class rail fleet training equipment in the U.S.,” Shook said, adding that he initially thought all the bells and whistles were “overkill.” But he soon came to realize that O’Neill had created “the ideal classroom situation, no matter where we want to perform it — if there are railroad tracks.”

O’Neill’s enduring dedication to first responder training earned him the honor of being awarded the TRANSCAER’s Chairman’s Award in 2008. However, to O’Neill, the Safety Train is much more than just a training tool; it’s personal, and each classroom car is dedicated to someone special to him, or the field.

The first complete Safety Train, consisting of five cars, was dedicated at Union Station in Washington, DC in September of 1999. On July 31, 2002 in West Springfield, MA, the second car was dedicated to O’Neill’s son, John R. O’Neill II, who died at the age of 17 following a sports injury in 2001. His son’s photo hangs in a former boxcar that now resembles a little red schoolhouse on the outside and a newly remodeled boardroom on the inside. 


John O’Neill created the Safety Train as a hands-on training experience with simulated drills and exercises.

The Dow Chemical Company train’s classroom car is dedicated to retired District Chief of Special Operations John Eversole of the Chicago Fire Department, who served as chairman of the hazardous materials committees of both the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Fire Protection Association. Chief Eversole died in 2007, and his photo hangs in the Dow car dedicated to him in Chicago in 2008. 

This personal touch, paired with the hard work O’Neill puts into each of the railcars, makes him a stickler for his trains’ care. When the trains start out, he said, “Everything is in perfect shape.” But if a car comes back with a spot on the carpet, “I go out of my mind,” he said. “Not even a generator can be dirty.”

Shook laughed when he agreed that if O’Neill thinks somebody has abused or misused the train cars, “You’re going to hear about it.”

“The Safety Train isn’t a job,” O’Neill said. “I don’t get paid for it. It’s a hobby out of control.”

In addition to O’Neill’s tireless work on the Safety Train — he starts his day at three a.m. — the program has come together and grown thanks to a partnership of first responders, Conrail and CSX Transportation, and The Dow Chemical Company.

The training cars are owned by the Firefighters Education and Training Foundation, which also schedules the trains’ appointments. Companies that want to use the cars for training pay an annual fee to belong to the Foundation. As part of their commitment to safety training, the railroads generously provide the locomotive power and move the cars where they are scheduled to go — free of charge.

Although training for the year usually ends before the November-December holiday season, in 2009, training was scheduled through mid-December. But that’s not enough for O’Neill, whose goal is for all railroads and chemical companies to get involved with the Foundation so the cars are used even more than they are now and more first responders are able to train using the equipment.

As the Foundation’s program continues to grow, it will remain one of the many resources available to members of TRANSCAER, a growing consortium of chemical manufacturers, transportation companies and related associations that already trains nearly 20,000 emergency personnel each year.

To learn more about participating in TRANSCAER events, visit For more information about The Firefi ghters Education and Trainers Foundation, contact John O’Neill at [email protected] or 508-308-1216. Amy Clymer is with the American Chemistry Council® and Heather Rose is with CHEMTREC®.
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