By Lauren Victory

CHICAGO (CBS)—Every day, more than 300 Amtrak trains cruise across the country.

Every so often, one catches fire.

Records reveal a small but growing problem with fires breaking out on trains.

Milwaukee news stations lit up the night of October 30, 2018 with interviews from Chicago Amtrak passengers evacuated mid-trip.

But like the minor fire, the story fizzled quickly—until now.

A look at Amtrak records shows 15 other similar fires on their trains in less than five years.

The concern is focused on battery boxes. They’re used most often as a source of back-up power.

In February 2016, one was “smoking” inside a cab car used to carry baggage.

Batteries under a coach car were “smoldering” and “leaking acid” in a September 2017 incident.

A month earlier, a mechanical part overheated the battery box on the locomotive of a Chicago-bound train, halting it in its tracks in Irving Park.

“It can be scary when you get off the train and you see there’s a fire and an evacuation,” said Transportation professor Joe Schwieterman. “All that just chips away at people’s interest in riding trains and it’s unfortunate that we have this blip in occurrences.”

A “blip in occurrences” was also how Amtrak characterized the fires.

Amtrak pointed out that they’ve run 500,000 trains the same time period.

But of their 16 battery box fires, at least nine happened on Amtrak trains that run through Chicago.

Schwieterman wonders if that’s more tech-related than a trend.

“There’s probably high reliance on batteries here and of course our weather is bad, the equipment is worked really hard,” Schwieterman said.

Amtrak tell CBS 2, “We are working with our vendors and internally to reduce the number of instances with these batteries.”

The log of incidents show boxes sparking all over the train, including a “dinette car” and locomotive.

“There’s no evidence there’s a real safety problem but there’s enough occurrences that it’s clearly on everybody’s radar as something that will get a look.”

The Federal Railroad Administration is aware of and monitoring Amtrak battery fires.

A spokesperson said the incidents don’t appear to have a root cause, so at this point, the FRA does not believe there is a “bigger battery issue.”

Amtrak says the fires have not happened inside passenger cars.

Batteries on that part of the train are attached underneath.

 

 

 

Lauren Victory