US Anti-terror rules for trains rapped
Published: March 15, 2008
Source: By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
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||A rail car is
towed July 19, 2001, from a tunnel in
Baltimore after a CSX freight train carrying
hazardous material derailed.
WASHINGTON — New anti-terrorism rules aimed at stopping companies from
sending railway cars packed with toxic chemicals through cities may
still leave large populations vulnerable, according to members of
Congress and security experts.
The rules require rail companies to assess whether it would be safer to
send cargo trains carrying chemicals to alternate routes around the
nation's 60 largest cities. Critics say that rail companies won't
reroute the trains because it would be too expensive.
"This is an ongoing horrendous risk," says Fred Millar, a national
expert on the threat posed by rail cars filled with chemicals such as
chlorine and ammonia. Millar said a rail car packed with chemicals could
provide an inviting target to a terrorist.
The government's rule will go into effect this spring.
Steve Kulm of the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad
Administration, which wrote the new government rule, says he doesn't see
a problem with giving rail companies leeway over where to send their
chemical-carrying cars. "We're not interested in just shifting the risk
from a big city to a medium-sized city," he says.
Assistant Administrator John Sammon at the department's Transportation
Security Administration (TSA), says the nation's rail lines were "built
in the 19th century, and many towns and cities were built up around
them. In many cases, it's not feasible" to reroute trains.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has pushed for rerouting, says he will
fight to keep the trains out of densely populated areas.
"These shipments of toxic chemicals are literally 'Hell on Wheels'
rolling through our communities," he says.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this month that his
department has tightened rail security in other ways.
Chertoff said voluntary agreements with rail companies have reduced the
"dwell time" of unattended cars carrying dangerous chemicals. The dwell
time refers to how long a rail shipment awaits pickup by a customer in a
Chertoff didn't say how long shipments typically await pickup.
"We have dramatically reduced the vulnerability," Chertoff said. "The
period of maximum vulnerability for a chemical on a rail line is not
when it's moving along in a kind of random fashion. The chances of
somebody being able to fire an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) at a tank
… in motion, are pretty small. The big danger is if it sits someplace
for a day."
Officials at the TSA and at the Association of American Railroads (AAR)
say the dwell time has been reduced by 40% over the past year.
Sammon says there are 110,000 shipments a year of deadly chemicals in
80-to-90-ton rail cars and that the TSA has made "a significant
reduction" in the risk posed by those shipments.
The AAR's Peggy Wilhide says companies now are working to make sure that
if a car filled with chlorine or another toxic chemical is delivered to
a rail yard on a Friday night, it doesn't sit there until Monday morning
waiting to be picked up by the company that ordered it. "We'd like them
not to be sitting there at all," she says.
Markey says eliminating dwell time alone is not enough. "Every day tank
cars pass through our urban centers carrying enough chlorine to kill or
injure 100,000 people in half an hour," he says.
Millar agrees. He says the only safe solution is to keep toxic trains
out of cities.
"Only if Secretary Chertoff thinks terrorists are terminally stupid and
slow on the draw could he maintain that they cannot hit 90-ton,
unarmored, slow-moving rail cars, clearly marked and so astonishingly
accessible that they are often tagged with graffiti."