AskRail™ app for first responders showcased in Chicago

Written by Mischa Wanek-Libman, Editor, Railway Track & Structures; and Engineering Editor, Railway Age
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AskRail™, the mobile application developed as an added safety tool for first responders, continued its industry-wide rollout with a demonstration at BNSF’s Chicago (Corwith) Intermodal Facility on June 8, 2015. The invite-only “smart-app” allows first responders who show up at the scene of a freight train accident to quickly determine what type of hazardous materials are being carried on each railcar.

RailincRailinc, a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), is responsible for developing AskRail, which was designed to be a backup resource in case an emergency responder can not locate the conductor or the train consist or while the emergency responder is waiting to receive the proper shipping document from a railroad representative.

“AskRail gives first responders immediate and accurate information about railcars carrying hazardous materials and is an invaluable tool for helping prepare those on the front line should a rail incident occur,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “Coupled with emergency training and response planning, AskRail augments the flow of information and specifics between freight railroads and emergency first responders in communities along the nation’s 140,000-mile freight rail network.”

Paper manifests are currently the only form of documentation that must be carried by hazardous material transporters. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has been working to complete a pilot program, the HM-ACCESS program, that will establish the viability of mandating electronic shipping papers in addition to the paper version. However, PHMSA’s pilot program has been continually delayed. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) has introduced a bill to create a national standard for electronic shipping papers and plans to continue to push PHMSA to complete the HM-ACCESS program, while also focusing on the expansion of the AskRail smart-app technology.

Initial rollout of AskRail began in October 2014, and all North American Class I railroads and Amtrak are participating in the app’s usage. Information about AskRail will now be part of the standard training emergency responders receive from Class I’s.

Rep. Lipinski joined area first responders and rail industry executives at Corwith to demonstrate AskRail. “Northeastern Illinois is at the center of the nation’s freight transportation system and is the nation’s rail hub, so I am committed to making sure that America’s rails are as safe as possible,” he said. “But in the event of an accident, I want to make sure our first responders have the best possible capabilities to protect our communities. I have been pushing the federal government and the railroads to develop an electronic system so that no first responder ever again has to board a locomotive to find out what types of hazardous materials are being carried on a train that has been in an accident. I am happy the railroads have responded with the AskRail technology. This will greatly help our first responders and make our communities safer.”

AskRail is available in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. A French-language version is being developed for launch later this year for use in French-speaking Canadian provinces.