What Cargo is Being Transported on the Trains that Run through Your County?

February 12, 2018

Knowing the Railroad Contents helps you be prepared for potential emergencies that could happen with railroads near your jurisdiction.


The American Association of Railroads (AAR) uses DIFFERENT COMMODITY TYPES to describe the commodities that dominate today’s freight rail. We will go over each of the categories, their usual content, and the cautions to proceed with during an emergency situation requiring your response.


  1. Energy Products

  2. Intermodal - containers used on Rail Cars, Highways, and Ships

  3. Chemicals

  4. Construction Materials

  5. Automotive Related

  6. (Other Specialized Commodities)



COMMON PRODUCTS: Ethanol, Coal, Crude Oil, Refined Petroleum, Gasses (Propane, LPG, Compressed Natural Gas)

RISK: Flammable, Inhalation Toxin, and/or Explosive

ABOUT: Each car must carry the Federal placard that corresponds to the load. The typical tank car will transport up to 34,500 gallons of product. Most first responders are not equipped to initially handle the quantity. Many of the products are hazardous. Large spills constitute serious dangers to persons & the environment.



COMMON PRODUCTS: Anything that can be packaged and fit in a container such as TV's, Computers, Couches, Food Products (including, beer, wine, liquor)

RISK: Security, Threat of Theft

ABOUT: Intermodal shipments are the fastest growing traffic. Intermodal is a container that will fit on a rail car, truck or ship.Many trucking companies use rail intermodal. It is used for more expensive, non-bulk freight. Intermodal cargo is the largest target of criminal rail theft, because many of the contents are easily carried off.



COMMON PRODUCTS: Explosives, Compressed & Liquified Gases, Flammable Liquids, Ethanol, Other Flammable Substances, Oxidizing Substances & Organic Peroxides, Chlorine (usually escapes as a gas), Radio Active materials, Corrosives, Toxic & Infectious Substances, Miscellaneous Hazardous Materials, Nonhazardous plastic pellets (Plastic materials account for around 26% of rail tonnage)

RISK: Flammable, Inhalation Toxin, and/or Explosive

CAUTION: Hazmat training often required. During a chemical rail incident, the most common “big surprise” for emergency response is managing the quantities.

ABOUT: The Federal US DOT classifies Hazardous Commodities into 9 basic substances (listed above in "common products"). About 8-10 % of all loads are hazardous. They are used in processes that create everyday products such as detergent, pharmaceuticals, and gasoline. Rails also move essential components for the U.S. military, power companies, and construction companies.



COMMON PRODUCTS: Wood & Lumber, Bulk Limestone & Quarried Rock, Bulk Dry Cement, Sand, and Gravel

RISK: May be difficult to retrieve, but lower risk in relation to chemical product category.

ABOUT: Raw wood, finished dimension lumber, plywood & composite board wood chips & wood pellets are growing. Demand comes from paper companies, commercial construction, and fossil fuel supplementation. It is considered bulk freight and moves typically in merchandise freight trains that have lower priority than intermodal or unit train.




  • Grains - Corn, Soybeans, Oats, Beets, Wheat, Rice, Rye, Barely

  • Food Products – Finished for human and animal consumption

  • Frozen or Temperature-controlled food or ingredient products

  • Anhydrous Ammonia, Potassium Compounds, and Urea

  • Fertilizer & Ingredients - Phosphate rock, Crude potash, and Sulphur

RISK: A caution must be included for Anhydrous Ammonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is a pungent gas suffocating fume that is used as a fertilizer. It will burn skin and can kill. Railroad loads are usually liquid.

ABOUT: Most of these products are inert and stable. In a major derailment where loads are spilled, the massive quantities will probably not be capable of being recovered by local providers. Railroaders use specialized contractors to safely remove and dispose of these products. 



COMMON PRODUCTS: Steel, Metals, Plastic, Glass, Frames, Engines, Upholstery

RISK: High value products expected to arrive in pristine condition.

ABOUT: Using a combination of boxcars and intermodal containers, railroads transport millions of auto parts each year. Railroads serve a majority of the 70-plus automobile manufacturing plants across North America. Auto manufacturing plants are found in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere. Each year, nearly three-quarters of the new vehicles are moved by freight rail. A single train can move approximately 750 automobiles — the ultimate model of scale and efficiency..


FINAL THOUGHTS: HAVE A LOCAL RAILROAD? Do you know what kind of materials are being transported on that railway? Do you have a plan in place for responding to a major hazmat rail incident? Clear Track Ahead is the solution.






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