Photo-sharing website powers train disaster maps

Flickr’s geo-tagged photos of crude oil trains built the first comprehensive map for ORNL scientists.
Published: Aug. 17, 2023 at 6:39 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2023 at 11:45 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A thought keeps some scientists up at night: a train going off its track and leaks dangerous chemicals. Six months ago, that’s what happened in East Palestine, Ohio. The spilled material made national news for weeks, but this was no “one off.”

Over the last decade, more than 300 crude oil trains derailed across America. Now some repurposed technology and the researchers behind it hope to prevent more trouble.

“This is what they call train 101,” Shannon Brotherton said. Brotherton was taking pictures of a Norfolk Southern train hauling scrap metal and other cargo through Morristown.

Brotherton loves trains; freight, military, Norfolk Southern, CSX.

“Just feeling the ground shake when they come by,” he said. “I get into my thing of taking pictures, of the train and everything, it’s like kind of like everything around me just goes away for a moment.”

He’ll post those pictures on his social media page, where other train fans can share their passion for locomotives.

“Yes ma’am, that is correct! All the way to Knoxville,” we heard over the train’s radio frequency.

And after Knoxville, well, who knows.

“But I don’t know where else they go when they leave here,” Brotherton said.

That was an issue for scientists monitoring safety of trains bearing crude oil. So researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory tried something unique: the photo website Flickr. They used geo-tagged photos to find the train routes. So far they’ve found 96% of the routes where industrial accidents happened.

“Every photo in Flickr, they have a tag, a description. So based on this description, we got back those data,” Dr. Majbah Uddin said.

Dr. Uddin strips public hashtags, thousands of them, to make a map. This is not new or illegal; this all comes from the data that Flickr users posted voluntarily.

“Certain researchers that are using geo-tagged photos what type of vacation areas you go to,” Uddin said.

While individual rail lines may publish routes, Uddin could not find a master manifest. So he made his own.

“This type of rail route is important. If there are spillage, there are severe consequences,” Uddin said.

One day soon, your pictures will ‘train’ computers to recognize other engines and cars.

“Using some machine learning or artificial intelligence technique, so definitely in the future,” Uddin said.

For Shannon in Morristown, he’ll keep sharing his photos.

“People will post pictures of them, saying this is coming this way,” Brotherton said.

East Tennessee did not end up on the map. That’s because we’re not a big route for crude oil on trains. But that does not mean we are immune to train derailments.

Just since 2012, WVLT News counted at least 34 train derailments in the coverage area. That included an incident in Maryville from 2015. That derailment injured 197 people, and forced thousands to evacuate.

One day we could map out potential hotspots, and perhaps even predict issues before they materialize.