Although a disaster involving a derailed commuter train and injured passengers in South Lowell on Sunday morning is fiction, the experience gained could prove to be the difference between life and death, should the unthinkable actually happen.
Indeed, for the participating public safety personnel, this mock exercise provided the kind of hands-on training that can only be surpassed by an actual disaster.
At least that’s the hope of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which partnered with emergency agencies across the region to conduct the training exercise, conducted on a section of track near Moore Street.
For the purposes of this exercise, a commuter train carrying four passenger cars sat on the off-line track.
Right in front of the train, a broken down van provided the accident that was waiting to happen.
Prior to the start of the exercise, Michael McCabe, Acting Director of Safety and Emergency Management at MassDOT, presented the scenario, in which a commuter train collides with the truck at a railroad crossing, causing the derailment of the train.
McCabe said several passengers — mostly Massachusetts Maritime Academy volunteers — portrayed people with various injuries, requiring evacuations by emergency crews.
To ensure that the exercise reflected real world conditions, a range of organizations participated in the exercise.
Besides MBTA Railroad Operations and Transit Police, they included Keolis Commuter Services, CSX Transportation, Lowell Police Department, Trinity Ambulance, Lowell General Hospital, UMass Lowell, and the Lowell, Dracut, Tyngsboro, and Littleton Fire Departments.
“It’s cross-organizational, so there’s mutual support,” McCabe explained. “…There are several briefings that they all attend. They go through the process, follow the procedures, and then they try it out in real time. »
During the simulation, a conductor walked through the carriages, checking passengers, asking if anyone had been injured.
Within moments, fire engines and Lowell ambulances arrived at the scene.
Emergency crews rushed into action, laying out and executing a plan to remove those on board. Some passengers could be taken out of the train cars, while others were carried on spinal boards.
Alex Cachecho, who served as logistics coordinator during the exercise, explained that passengers are briefed on injuries to act on and what to tell emergency responders.
“It all adds to the experience of the (emergency teams),” Cachecho said.
The drill ended about an hour after it started, with passengers placed in a triage area, grouped according to different levels of injuries, from less critical to more lethal.
At the end of the training exercise, McCabe said all agencies involved will study the simulation to determine its effectiveness and make adjustments for future exercises.
For the most part, the commuter rail component of the MBTA was spared the crashes and breakdowns that plagued the T’s subway and streetcar system.
But derailments, although rare, do occur.
In June, a commuter train derailed near Beverly Station in what the MBTA called “a low-speed vertical derailment.”
No injuries were reported and buses took over temporarily until the rail line was back on track.
But tragedies do happen.
Just before 6 p.m. on January 21, Roberta “Robbi” Sausville Devine was crossing the Middlesex Avenue Railroad level crossing in Wilmington when her car was struck by a train, killing her instantly.
Due to human error, the crossing gates did not close. Located in a quiet area, no whistle warned her of the approach of a train.
This fatal accident demonstrated that, no matter how well prepared, flaws in the safety system – since corrected in this case – can circumvent the best-designed rescue procedures put in place and meticulously reviewed.
But it’s still reassuring to know that a coordinated effort backed by a host of specially trained emergency responders is on call for crisis situations like the one repeated on Sunday.