By Brian Butle

See article "Rapid Transit Fire Response" at Firehouse.Com

Fire departments in urban and metropolitan areas respond to a variety of emergencies involving the railway whether it’s inside the terminal, at the platform, along the tracks, or at railroad crossings. We are called to duty for fire alarms, extrications, recoveries, pin jobs, suicides, derailments, hazmats, electrical fires, switch heater and brush fires along the tracks, bomb threats (terrorism), and structure assignments within the station or attached occupancies such as parking garages and terminal restaurants. But how often do we respond to fires involving passenger trains full of commuters? Are we prepared to handle a burning passenger train car on an elevated platform or an electrical fire in a locomotive carrying 2000 gallons of diesel fuel?  

Although rare occurrences, locomotive and passenger train fires do happen. They are often started by broken fuel lines spraying on exhaust manifolds, fuel or oil leaks, electrical, or arson. Most rapid transit fires will involve locomotives, diesel-electric units, diesel multiple units, passenger cars, and areas with a third rail.  

This article will focus on passenger train fires involving the passenger and locomotive compartment in rapid transit and high-speed rail in urban and metropolitan areas.


Rapid Transit: Rapid transit, or mass transit is a system of public transportation in urban, suburban and metropolitan areas used to quickly transport passengers by railway. Most rapid transit systems transport commuters in electrified territory. Common methods of propulsion power are from overhead catenary lines, trolley wire, third rail, and diesel-electric multiple units. Rapid transit systems travel underground (subway), through tunnels, over bridges, elevated platforms, and open electrified territory. High speed rail and commuter rail are popular modes of passenger travel in major cities and metropolitan areas, moving thousands of commuters every hour. 

Preplans: First due companies should familiarize themselves with the railroad tracks and train stations in their response area. It helps to know the layout of the terminal, track numbers, standpipe, FDC, knox box locations, and railroad crossings. 

It’s critical that firefighters familiarize themselves with the electrocution hazards of high voltage overhead catenary lines, electrified third rails, diesel-electric locomotives, and transformers on railway property in electrified territory. Knowing what trains service those tracks (Amtrak, Transit, CSX) can be helpful when it comes to stopping train movement. 

Obtaining as much information as possible during preplans will better prepare first-in companies during train fire incidents. Preplans with railroad emergency management will determine proper agency notifications which will be helpful when implementing a Unified Command System during an incident.

Response: During these incidents, company officers should be prepared to have their dispatcher contact the Transit Police assigned to that jurisdiction or railroad, and meet them on arrival at the station or track location if possible. They are usually familiar with and have access to secured properties along the railroad and in the terminal. They also have their own dispatch and railway contacts if train service must be stopped. Make contact with the train conductor and engineer, as they can provide important guidance and information on the incident. 

Before implementing suppression tactics, first attempt to identify the type of railroad territory, train propulsion, ensure proper apparatus placement, and conduct an initial size up. This will set the stage for our incident action plan.

  Size Up: For passenger train fires, the key size up factors that will determine your strategy and tactics are the location of the fire, access to the train, exposure issues, type of propulsion power, and what’s burning; is it class A, B, C, or all the above? These will be major factors when implementing your initial actions for rescue, fire attack, and exposure protection. 

Consider the differences between a train fire at the platform in the terminal compared to a train fire in a tunnel, or on a bridge over water. Access can also be a major problem for firefighters as the railroads are heavily secured properties. Many rapid transit properties are fenced in with locked access gates, fortified fencing, waterways, terrain, and other natural barriers that can make it extremely difficult to reach an emergency scene. 

Once location has been identified, determine the following:

*What's on fire? (Passenger Car, Locomotive, Class A, B, C)

*Are there trapped passengers in the train cars?

*Is it possible to safely reach the involved train car with a hoseline or fire extinguisher?

*Is there an FDC and standpipe? If so, is that the best option for attack?

*Are there exposure issues such as overhead catenary wires, or adjacent train cars?

*Are there flammable liquids involved?

*Are there obstruction issues for accessing the train car?

*What is energized and who do we contact to remove power and halt train movement? 

For train fires in tunnels:

*What’s burning; Does it involve the locomotive, passenger car, cables, transformers, heaters, or the third rail?

*Are there cross passageways available?

*Is there a ventilation system and is it working properly?

*Is the railway shut down and deenergized?

Some of this information can be determined during preplans.

There's no textbook strategy for all train fires. The propulsion power must be identified for the safety of firefighters and passengers because each type has its own dangers and safety procedures to deal with before suppression begins. Most rapid transit fires are going to involve electricity. Others will involve flammable liquids and passenger compartment combustibles. Train fires can be Class A, B, C or all the above.

Apparatus Placement

Transit Centers


Stamford CT Transit Center: For train fires occurring in the station at the platform, configuration of the terminal will determine if it's better to supply the FDC or stretch from the pumper. Train platforms can be as long as 1000 feet with no standpipe connections available on an outdoor platform 



Trenton Transit Center (pictured above) has platforms of 600 and 900 feet long. It's an additional 100 feet up the stairs to reach the closest standpipe inside the terminal. During fire preplans, measure the distance from the standpipe to the end of the platform, or the furthest train car from the outlet. Prepare in advance for long hose stretches before these incidents happen. 

Elevated Platforms


Norristown PA SEPTA Line: For elevated platforms, aerials or tower ladders should have priority and positioned at the ready in case passengers need to be rescued. Although a rare occurrence and usually a last resort, aerial and tower trucks have been utilized to rescue passengers on elevated platforms in the past when rescue trains weren’t utilized.



In difficult to access areas where terrain will be an issue, some options are to utilize a smaller apparatus such as a brush unit, or walk a supply line to the area. For small brush fires along the tracks caused by sparks, arcing, bring a shovel and smother with dirt. If this is not possible, let the railroad handle it.

Train fire in Rockland County NY.




Milwaukee: This Amtrak passenger train loaded with commuters caught fire in the engine room of the locomotive. Firefighters switched to foam once they were advised that the locomotive was carrying 5000 gallons of diesel fuel, preparing to make the trip to Chicago. Diesel and dual-locomotives have emergency fuel shutoffs (identified in red).  VIDEO of fire-link- https://youtu.be/dGSwaaXnqYk

Railroad Crossings


Apparatus Placement will vary depending on location of fire, FDC etc...but at a railroad crossing, do NOT park over the tracks as seen here.


For railroad crossings, common sense applies; do not park on or too close to the tracks, or under trolley lines.

(Detroit Ladder Truck parked on tracks struck by train) https://youtu.be/5iuks_zIBkE 

Third Rail Fire

CTA train pulls up to the platform and catches fire. Secure power on third rail and confirm movement is stopped before fire attack. 

Locomotive Fire

This Amtrak fire in Wilmington DE. forced the evacuation of 180 passengers. Smoke entering the train station forced additional evacuations. Some concerns here are passenger control, panic, difficult access, electrocution, water supply and time of day. Click here to see video of burning locomotive passenger train in Milwaukee.

Third Rail Fire

On January 6, 2014 around 3:00 am the skies of Mt. Vernon were lit by a large fire and explosions of the third rail on the Metro North rail line just west of the Mount Vernon East Metro North train station.  The official report was salt from melting snow on the overpass started the fire 

Common Rapid Transit Propulsion



A catenary is a system of overhead wires used to supply electricity to an electric locomotive equipped with a pantograph. These high-speed rail lines average 18-23 feet in height from the rail head and are energized with 12,000 volts AC. These are preferred for higher speeds and longer distances. 

*Trolley lines are overhead lines and poles used to power street cars and light rail. 

Third Rail


Provides electric power to a train through a conductor placed alongside or between the rails of a railroad track. Third rails are usually 600-750 volts DC (direct current) electricity with many sporting protective covers on them. Third rails may be top running (the shoes of the train riding on top), bottom running (the shoes ride the underside of the rail), or side running.   

Diesel Electric Multiple Units


DEMU’s use a diesel engine located in the middle car that drives an alternator producing AC current to power the electric traction motors in the wheels. Rapid transit light rail service using diesel-electric multiple units do not always have to rely on electrified territory for travel. This would mean that some of the hazards from overhead catenary wires and the third rail may be eliminated. Again, this is it’s why important to know the propulsion, territory, and the trains servicing the tracks in your response area.

Electric Locomotive


Electric: The standalone electric locomotives use catenary, trolley line or third rail for power. 

These locomotives do not carry diesel fuel, therefore they will not have the fuel shutoffs on the sides of the locomotive. This is an easy way to identify them. 

Dual Locomotive


Diesel-Electric:  Dual-locomotives are operable with or without overhead catenary and pantograph. The diesel engine drives a generator which makes electricity to power traction motors. These locomotives resemble the electric locomotive, but will have emergency fuel shut offs on both sides and in the control car. They usually carry between 1000-4000 gallons of diesel fuel.   



The pantograph makes and sustains contact with the catenary lines on an electric locomotive. Dual locomotives have the ability to drop the pantograph and use diesel power in electrified and  non-electrified territory. 

Passenger Train Fires

Diesel Multiple Units


 Light Rail: Light rail trains are usually powered by overhead catenary, trolley lines, third rail, or diesel-multiple units.  

Emergency Fuel Shutoffs


Holding the shutoff for 3-6 seconds will shut down the engine, and stop electrical power generation in a diesel-electric locomotive.  

Auto Suppression


 Some locomotives may have an on-board automatic fire suppression system. For instance, the (Amtrak) Acela has an on board automatic suppression system. In addition, a dry pipe system is present on the exterior with standard 2 ½ female connection to supply sprinkler heads inside the equipment room. 

Ground Ladder Use


Use extreme caution when considering the use of ground ladders to evacuate stranded passengers in this type of terrain (pictured above) during an emergency. A ground ladder making contact with overhead wires can kill a complacent firefighter. Wait for catenary line power to be removed. Some trains carry wooden and fiberglass ladders for passenger evacuation. Preplans will determine whether they're present, and located.

Grounding Poles


If the train is derailed and on fire, do not come within 30 feet of the overhead wires or train cars until power removed, catenary wires grounded (pictured above) and permission granted by a qualified railroad representative. With third rails, the trains shoes may be energized. This will require “paddling” (wooden paddle between energized third rail and shoe) to deenergize. This should not be performed by fire department personnel.



 Standpipes will most likely be present on platforms below grade in heated terminals. Outdoor platforms in cold regions will have the standpipe connection inside the terminal or a dry system on the outdoor platform. 

  When using the standpipe in a terminal and stretching down to the platform, only escalators may be present. Hit the emergency stop button and make it a staircase before descending. 


Typically, when a passenger train catches fire, the engineer will attempt to make it to the next station platform or other safe area to evacuate the passengers. But if the train is disabled and stranded in a tunnel, subway, on a bridge or other difficult to access area, additional resources will be needed. Most likely a rescue train will be requested by the engineer to tow the train back to a safe area. 

Light Rail: Light rail trains are usually powered by overhead catenary, trolley lines, third rail, or diesel-multiple units. Many light rail trains have roof mounted compressor heating and air conditioner units that can overheat and burn. After determining what is burning, ensure that the train is de-energized and movement stopped with the operator. Fires in locomotives and motor compartments involving diesel fuel should be fought as a Class B fire using foam. Fire extinguishers are usually located in each coach and can be used for small fires in the control car or heating/AC units. 

Passenger cars are Class A materials and using water is acceptable as long as the third rail is not a danger. The power to overhead lines and third rail can be secured from a command center. DMU's can be shutdown from the control car, and should be verified with the car operator. 

  Locomotives: For burning locomotives, expect an electrical or diesel fire. With high voltage cabinets and a few thousand gallons of diesel fuel present, you could have both a Class B and C fire. Most rapid transit locomotives are powered by electric, or diesel-electric locomotives that carry up to 4000 gallons of diesel fuel. 

Foam: For large class B fires involving diesel fuel, foam is the best extinguishing agent. If the locomotive is traveling in electrified territory, use extreme caution and deenergize before suppression. Stop train movement in one or both directions on adjacent tracks if needed. 

Passenger Cars: Most passenger cars will involve Class A combustibles. Although not considered “rapid” transit, passenger trains with dining cars (kitchens), sleeping cars (bedroom furnishings) and auto train (several motor vehicles on board) can also present potential class B,C, and D fire. 

ELECTRIFIED TERRITORY- Electrified territory is dangerous because of the potential for electrocution. Even after power removal, be cognizant that the possibility of residual current may be an issue. Most trains are powered by overhead catenary wires, or third rail service. Catenary lines carry 12,000 volts of AC electrical power, with the majority of third rail using between 600-750 volts DC to propel trains. Transmission lines above catenary wires can have approximately 100,000-200,000 volts present. Switch heaters along the tracks carry 220 volts AC. It’s critical for all firefighters to understand that rushing in to a scene can be dangerous. Wait the arrival of a railway representative (Trainmaster, Engineer, Electrician, Road Foreman, Lineman, Emergency Management Rep) before approaching a fire in electrified territory.   

Train Fires Under Catenary System:  Monitor the overhead catenary wires if exposed to fire and keep first responders and onlookers away in case they drop. Look for the conductor and engineer for status update and request them to drop the pantograph if present. Await confirmation that AC power has been secure, and travel is halted on adjacent tracks in both directions of the involved train if they will pose a danger to passengers or firefighters.

Never stretch a line onto a passenger train until you get confirmation from the conductor and engineer that the trains movement and power is secure. 


Fires Involving Third Rail Territory: For fires involving arcing third rails, locomotive, or passenger cars, the main concern is the danger of electrocution. There's more than enough DC current present to kill a complacent firefighter contacting the third rail. 

Man killed by contact with third rail in subway- https://nypost.com/2017/09/03/man-killed-after-touching-third-rail-at-subway-station/ 

For a class A fire inside the passenger car, use caution while accessing the car and with water streams around an energized third rail. If there's no life hazard, it's best to just wait for employees of the railway to shut off power before suppression begins.

For electrical fires involving the third rail, consult with a representative from the railroad. It's best to keep personnel away and wait for the power to be removed (breaker shut off). De-energizing the DC circuit breakers that supply the traction power for the third rails should be done first for safety unless there's a rescue that must take place and a risk-benefit analysis done. If the fire or rescue is remote from the affected third rail, use extreme caution and do not contact the rail.

Assign a Safety Officer: In addition to electrocution dangers, there's the potential of being struck by a train going by at speeds up to 100 MPH. Every year in the U.S. railroads over 500 trespassers are struck and killed by speeding trains. Assign a safety officer to monitor approaching trains and alert personnel working in the area. Keep in mind that on high speed rail it could take a train up to a mile to come to a complete stop once they’re notified by dispatch. 

TIP: Dropping a flare in the "gauge" (between the rails of the track) will be treated as a stop and proceed. This will allow the train, which will then travel at a restricted speed, to stop within half the distance of the reason the flare was put there.  

The railroad is an extremely dangerous zone. All train fires should require a mandatory safety officer for this reason. At a fire incident in the DC subway, firefighters were surprised when the power that was originally turned off, came back on and trains started moving again while operating at a small fire. This could have been disastrous!


It's important for new firefighters and company officers assigned to an area with rail service to become familiar with its operation. Become familiar with railroad crossings, platform numbers, terminal configuration, fire protection systems, bridges, tunnels, elevated platforms, propulsion power, access to secure and adjacent properties. Know the trains that service those tracks and the contact information for transit police, emergency management and dispatchers. Know who to contact for mutual aid, hazmat, and foam task force response. Understand the various dangers the railroad presents when responding to fires on railway property. The more information obtained during preplans, the easier your high-risk/low frequency event will become. Stay safe!

Light Rail Extrication

HEP Cables


Do NOT walk between or under the cars with the HEP cables (Head End Power) 480 Volt AC power. These HEP cables (pigtails, jumpers) provide power to the passenger train cars where it is reduced to 220 and 110 AC. The current travels through cables underneath passenger cars. Do not remove or disconnect these cables! This is the responsibility of the railroad, not fire department.

Lower Pantograph


For a Class A fire inside of a passenger car with no exposure to the overhead catenary wires, or if there’s a life hazard present, a line can be stretched onto the train if the pantograph is dropped first. This will remove it from contacting the high voltage catenary wires above. The pantograph can be lowered by the engineer with a switch located in the operating cab. Remember, it's best to work with representatives of the railway on fire attack strategy if possible. 

Third Rail


This third rail has a protective cover. Fires in subways and tunnels are often the result of third-rail arcing, or burning dirty insulators that create a smoke condition within the tunnel. The insulators eventually fail and arc, releasing smoke and fire. If the burning insulator is made of fiberglass or porcelain, it can ignite nearby combustibles like wooden rail ties, cables, trash piles and third-rail protective guards.

Emergency Exits


To remove windows from the outside remove the gasket around the window. (Pictured above center) During train fires, removing these windows for ventilation or passenger removal is a good tactic if it can be done safely. Adjacent tracks may still have train service unbeknownst to firefighters working nearby. The safety officer must monitor the status of rail service on the adjacent tracks.   



When using the standpipe in a terminal and stretching down to the platform, only escalators may be present. Hit the emergency stop button and make it a staircase. Standpipes will most likely be present on platforms below grade in heated terminals. Outdoor platforms in cold regions will have the standpipe connection in the terminal/station, other regions in warmer climates may have a dry system on the outdoor platform.  

Diesel-Electric Locomotives


This  locomotive uses a diesel engine to drive either an electrical  DC generator, or AC alternator that provides power to the traction motors that drive the locomotive. Although this CSX train pictured above is not considered a a "rapid transit" locomotive, a fire in the compartments consisting of electrical/mechanical equipment could be cautiously fought with water once completely de-energized, applying short bursts with a 30 degree fog pattern, and after consulting with the incident commander, engineer or yard master. 

DC Metro Train Tunnel Fire

The smoke filled tunnel of the DC Metro system's Green/Yellow line at the L'Enfant Plaza station. The passengers on the train were waiting to be rescued by the DC Fire & EMS Department.  

People Will Panic

On the Red Line in Boston, a failure in the trains propulsion system resulted in a burst of smoke that had passengers kicking out the windows in panic. 


Locomotive Fire

Access has to be made to the cabinets on the locomotive and treated as electrical fire. 

Railroad Emergencies

Collision-Fire & Entrapment


A collision at a railroad crossing may result in a fire once the gas tank ruptures and sparks from the train/rail ignite the fuel. Prepare for a recovery during these accidents.

Electrical Fire Locomotive


Interior locomotive fires should be treated as electrical fires, unless diesel fuel involved.



Copper thieves along the tracks were electrocuted. Firefighters need to use extreme caution and avoid complacency, especially near electrified territory.

Patient Transport


Fires in tunnels may overcome train passengers with smoke inhalation. This will require additional manpower for transporting patients long distances.

Rail Maintenance Trains


Do not count out the possibility of a fire or emergency involving the maintenance train cars that service the tracks and power sources. 

Intoxicated Falls


Use extreme caution when attempting a rescue or recovery. The third rail power has to be secure. If a train is approaching, a decision will have to be made whether the train can stop in time and a risk/benefit analysis done to see if an immediate rescue needs to be made.

Adjacent & Secured Properties

Outside of train station and transit center parking garages, platforms, terminal restaurants, coffee shops, stores etc.. gaining access to the adjacent railroad property can be difficult for fire personnel or apparatus not carrying keys or access cards. Most property along the tracks are heavily secured due to trespassers, substations, track hazards, high voltage dangers, propane, transformers, and liability issues. Most railways have police who can respond and help the fire department access these areas. Just because we can access them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wait for the experts. Adjacent properties are secured because they are dangerous. In addition to track switches and trains passing by at speeds near 100 MPH, there are other concerns that apply:

Propane: Propane tanks along the railroad are used to fuel switch heaters, which keep track switches from freezing during cold weather. In urban areas, these areas can be accessed by vagrants, vandals, juveniles for dumping furniture, trash and stolen cars. When responding to trash and vehicle fires along the tracks, request police and use extreme caution on approach for fires where tanks are exposed. 

If there’s a propane release along the tracks, train movement should be halted. Propane is heavier than air and if it reaches the tracks, sparks from a train can be an ignition source. 

Substations and Transformers: For fires involving transformers or substations, request power shutdown and await arrival of a rail representative. Do not attempt entry or extinguishment without consulting with a supervisor from the railroad. Many of these “power” structures (substations) operate with high voltage and many have an automatic suppression system.

If the fire department is dispatched to railroad property for a transformer fire, request and wait for a railway representative and protect any nearby combustibles from fire. If there’s no immediate life hazard, wait for the railway representative. For fires in rail yards, a yardmaster may be on scene to assist. 

NOTE: For extreme emergencies such as derailments or collisions resulting in fire and entrapment, firefighters may have to perform rapid passenger rescues and evacuation from a commuter train. Whether dealing with unbreakable polycarbonate windows, emergency release handle locations, force entry techniques for biparting doors, or activating cantilevered top escape hatches, training with local transit emergency management should help prepare first responders locate and operate these access/egress points.

Tunnel fires click here...







Elevated Platforms

Bridges Over Water


Bridges Over Water- For the first due officer arriving to a burning passenger train on a bridge over water, he has just been introduced to “Murphy’s Law.” What are the chances? 

Obviously, these extremely rare incidents will have to be handled depending on circumstances and safety features in place, but having knowledge of the trains, rail service, and territory on those tracks can help mitigate these incidents. Let’s look at a few examples:

Passenger Car: For fires in passenger cars separated from the unaffected locomotive, the passengers will most likely be moved to the rear of another car away from the fire, and the train will continue to a safe area for evacuation. 

Locomotive: If the locomotive is burning and disabled, the train will not be able to continue to a safe area to evacuate passengers. If the passenger cars are separated from the locomotive, this is a good thing and the passengers will be safely moved to the rear of the train away from the isolated burning locomotive. Most likely a rescue car will be requested.

Elevated Platform: A train fire on an elevated platform can be complicated, especially over water and out of reach by aerial apparatus. If it’s just the third rail arcing or an insulator burning, it’s usually a minor issue with passengers sheltering in place until power shutdown. 

VIDEO- FDNY On-scene Queens Box 7845 for an Electrical Fire Under the Tracks on the Elevated Platform of the Manhattan Bound (7) Train at the Jackson Heights - Roosevelt Avenue Station in Jackson Heights, Queens. 1/12/18 https://youtu.be/MYahKA7crdE 

Monorails: Elevated platform monorail systems are like light rail trains but operate on a single rail. They also can operate with or without an operator. They are becoming more common at airports, amusement parks, commuter cities and tourist areas like Seattle, Las Vegas, Jacksonville and Disney. Fires in monorails are extremely rare. Like any elevated railway, evacuation of trapped passengers in a burning train will have to accomplished through adjacent tracks, tunnel exits, rescue cars, walkways, or fire department aerial devices. 

Evacuating a burning mass transit passenger train on an elevated platform or bridge is usually a last resort, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for such an incident. Initial actions by the fire department will depend on location, access, propulsion, territory, and whether the fire involves the locomotive or passenger car. It helps to contact the conductor and engineer for assistance. The train crew will usually determine the best actions depending on circumstances. They will also help contact their central dispatch to stop movement on any adjacent tracks and remove power to the train. Options will vary from moving passengers the furthest away from the affected car, to evacuating passengers off the right-of-way. Using rescue trains is another option, depending on the urgency to evacuate passengers. 

On board fire extinguishers may help extinguish or keep the fire in check. If not, prepare for additional resources to assist in reaching and evacuating passengers, aerial/tower operations, water supply, and EMS. Add to this the possibility of elderly and handicapped passengers who may be stranded. Are we prepared for an incident like this?

Parking Garage Fires

Visit our page on "Parking Garage" fires.

Find out more



Walkways are provided on some elevated platforms. These are to be used for last resort emergency egress from a train when no other method of escape is available. 



The SEPTA line at the Philadelphia airport uses overhead catenary and elevated platforms. SEPTA also runs third rail in the subway system, trolley lines on street cars, and high speed rail in open electrified territories.  

Railroad Crossings


Trains into cars and trucks are the common collisions resulting in train fires at railroad crossings.

Atlanta- MARTA


Atlanta's Squad 4 responds with a full alarm assignment to all MARTA related fires and other emergencies in tunnels and subways. They use hot sticks and shunt straps to confirm power shutdown on the third rail. 

Chicago- CTA


Chicago Fire Department has a special operations unit for subway and tunnel emergencies. 

Trenton- NJ Transit


Trenton NJ responds with a full box assignment to all emergencies involving the Trenton Transit Center, NJ Tranist light rail system, and Amtrak rail properties where SEPTA and NJ Transit high speed trains travel in electrified territory along the busy Northeast corridor. 


Subways & Tunnels

Ventilation Systems

Fires in subways are often the result of third rail arcing, sparks igniting cables or burning dirty insulators that create a smoke condition within the tunnel. The insulators eventually fail and arc releasing smoke and fire. If the burning insulator is made of fiberglass or porcelain, it can ignite nearby combustibles like wooden rail ties, cables, trash piles and third rail protective guards. 

Some main concerns for fire operations underground will be radio communications, visibility, commuter panic, air supply, lighting, and manpower. Request air units, hazmat teams for air monitoring, and medical/triage areas for additional resources. 

While most mass transit incidents are minor, they do have the potential for a mass casualty incident. And although fatalities are rare, the potential for smoke inhalation, panic and fall injuries are common, even when minor smoke conditions occur in a tunnel. 

In January of 2015, an electrical fire filled the DC Metro tunnel with smoke near L’Enfant Plaza, killing one passenger and injuring others. The toxic smoke was produced by insulation in cables called “jumper cables.” At many places in the rail system, gaps in the third rails use jumper cables to ensure that 750 volts of current flow through the third rails, providing power to trains.

If a passenger train is disabled in the tunnel, additional resources will be required immediately for evacuation, equipment transport, and suppression. A more serious incident would involve a burning locomotive or passenger car with mechanical failure in the tube. A disabled burning train full of commuters producing toxic smoke in a confined space can have deadly consequences. 

During fire conditions, the conductor and engineer will attempt to move passengers away from the affected car and make it to a safe area. If that's not possible, a rescue car will be summoned to bring the car to a safe area. If there’s an emergency that requires immediate evacuation from the train cars, there are usually emergency escape shelters, crossover doors and exit stairs along with ventilation systems in most tunnels. BUT these are not always reliable or effective. Hopefully for the confused and panicking passengers looking to escape the tunnel, these protective systems are in place and working to our benefit. 

Passengers stuck on the DC Metro were not so fortunate.  


NFPA 130: According to NFPA 130 "Standard for Fixed Guideway and Transit Systems" the maximum distance permitted between exits and cross passageways is 2,500 ft. and 800 ft. NFPA 130 also requires that an enclosed tunnel of 200 ft. or longer be provided with and emergency ventilation system to maintain a tenable environment along the egress path.

Ventilation Systems: Most tubes with smoke control are longitudinally ventilated using mechanical ventilation (supply/exhaust) operated at a remote-control center that could be miles away. Other systems are designed to ventilate relying on natural air currents or piston effect (train movement) to exhaust fumes up and out at street level, or in direction of tunnel axis. The idea is to have the smoke pushed towards the direction of travel while passengers move in the opposite direction. This seems like a great plan, but realistically are we expected to believe 150 passengers fleeing smoke in a tunnel will all comply? This will also pose a problem for firefighters responding from the exhaust direction. Add commuter chaos, limited air supply, poor communications with portable radio, and limited visibility to the list of challenges for first responders. 

Rapid transit properties with underground tunnels require extensive preplanning. Some subways may go several levels below grade. A well-involved train car burning in a sub-division will require additional alarms, mainly to assist passengers, and for equipment transport (lighting, SCBA bottles). 

"Mistakes During Subway Fire Spur New Emergency Training" 


For fires in tunnels under 200’ long, the main concern are overhead catenary wires that travel through the tunnels exposed to fire from a burning train below. Do not enter any tunnel during a fire with overhead catenary wires exposed until deenergized and grounded by rail employees. Fires in underwater tubes must have alternate types of emergency exits and egress routes. Again, this emergency evacuation would be a last resort option. Transporting passengers via rescue train is a much safer option. 

Many big city fire departments with subways have dedicated units that specialized in tunnel response. For instance, the Chicago Fire Department has a Special Operations Tunnel Response company that specialized in subway emergencies. These members are trained in evacuation, suppression, air monitoring, lockout/tagout, and chaining third rails. 

Atlanta Fire Department's Squad 4 responds with a full alarm assignment to all MARTA related fires and other emergencies in tunnels and subways. They use hot sticks and shunt straps to confirm power shutdown on the third rail. 

REMEMBER: Most of the time the individual requesting the command center to shut down the power will be the one authorized to request to have the power restored.  

In New York City, NYPD’s ESU (Emergency Services Unit) and the FDNY’s Special Operations Unit Tunnel Task Force made up of members of the Rescue and Squad companies respond to subway emergencies. The task force is prepared to respond with collapse teams, paramedics, air compressor units, hazmat teams, and other specialized equipment. 

Philadelphia’s SEPTA system sends a full box assignment for train fires underground, on the street, or an elevated platform. Philadelphia firefighters are trained to learn all the subway station locations, stored auxiliary equipment, wooden and fiberglass evacuation ladders, standpipes and vent wells. Most ventilation systems are natural and can be identified by steel grates at street level. 

Many cities train annually with transit emergency management on various drills from active shooter, terrorism, hazmat WMD, derailments and fires. 

New York: Five passengers killed at railroad crossing collision and fire- (Picture above) http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/04/us/new-york-train-collision/index.html

Railroad Crossings: Fires at railroad crossings are usually the result of “train into vehicle.” The vehicle is often ignited by the impact rupturing the gas tank with sparks produced by the still-moving train as the ignition source. These tragedies usually result in a recovery with the vehicle being pushed to the side or down the tracks a way before the train comes to a halt. With the vehicle being a total loss, exposure to the train will be the concern for firefighters. These fires have resulted in fire spreading to the control and passenger cars. 

Brush fires along the tracks are common because of sparks generated by moving trains igniting the dry brush along the tracks. These can easily be handled with a water can, shovel and dirt, or booster line. The main concern for these small fires are moving trains near firefighters who are not paying attention to their surroundings.

Remember, apparatus placement is a serious priority at a rail crossing. Parking on or too close to the tracks is bad practice. 

In closing, basing preplans off the type of territory, propulsion power, emergency contacts, terminal configuration, access to adjacent properties, and trains servicing those tracks will give you a major head start on initial actions during a high risk-low frequency event involving rapid transit. 

Coming soon, "Rapid Transit Emergencies 2"- (August 2018) Pin jobs, extrications, derailments, maintenance train fires, and more... 


Brian Butler is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and Captain with the City of Trenton NJ Fire Dept. He also works for King of Prussia PA Fire Rescue in suburban Philadelphia and is a member of the Southeastern PA Technical Rescue Task Force and Hazmat Response Team. He’s a Level 2 Fire Instructor and owner of UrbanFireTraining.Com. Both his urban and metropolitan departments have rapid transit, high-speed rail, light rail, and freight service in their first due response area using catenary, third rail, diesel-multiple units, and diesel-electric locomotive power. He can be reached at urbanfiretraining@gmail.com

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