Securing Dangerous Rail Shipments: New Federal Legislation May Give States and Cities the Help They've Been Looking for to Protect Urban Areas from Potential Terrorist Attacks

Article excerpt


The new homeland security bill, signed in August, may now resolve--at least in part--the debate that has raged for several years between government and the railroad industry over how to secure the riskiest rail shipments, chlorine and anhydrous ammonia.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Madrid train bombings in 2004 led many state and local governments to consider, in conflict with federal authorities and the railroad industry, rerouting shipments away from densely populated areas.

Chlorine, anhydrous ammonia and other chemicals used in water treatment plants and the farming industry are poisonous and can be fatal. An estimated 100,000 shipments of so-called "toxic-by-inhalation chemicals" are sent by rail each year, representing about 10 million metric tons. A terrorist attack on rail tank cars carrying such chemicals through an urban area could be catastrophic. A worst-case scenario, devised in a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory study, used the release of chlorine gas (a chemical weapon used in WWI) from a 90-ton tanker car during a July 4th celeb ration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An estimated 100,000 people would die within 30 minutes. The direct economic impact would exceed $5 billion.

What balance can policymakers strike between the risks of a deliberate or accidental release of these dangerous but necessary materials? What changes need to be made to the current hazardous materials regulatory scheme, which is based almost entirely on the potential for accidental spills and not on deliberate attacks designed for catastrophic impacts?

It's not easy to secure the American railroad system's vast and exposed infrastructure. Seven major freight railroads, at least 500 short line and regional railroads, Amtrak and a large number of other passenger systems operate on some 170,000 miles of track. Despite its vastness, it is historically the safest and most energy-efficient way to move hazardous materials such as chemicals, explosives and radioactive materials.

Non-intentional releases of the most hazardous train shipments are more frequent, however, than people generally think. Though several small releases of toxins from rail incidents have occurred in the past few years, the one that galvanized public concern was a train accident in South Carolina in January 2005. It ruptured a rail tank car of chlorine, unleashing a cloud of toxic gas that killed nine people, sent scores of injured to area hospitals and resulted in an evacuation of 5,400 people from their homes and businesses within a one-mile radius of the spill.


State and city officials have thought that the federal government has moved too slowly to counter this threat and has not invested adequate resources. Compared to spending on aviation security, rail security has been shortchanged, according to Representative Mike Turner of Tennessee, who sponsored a bill to re-route hazmats away from the State Capitol.


"I think that railroads and the dangerous materials they transport are many times more likely to cause a problem and much more of a dangerous threat than the airline industry," Turner says. "We need to better assess the security risk of railroads in this country."

Although the recently enacted federal homeland security legislation is a step in the right direction, cities and states have pushed ahead with initiatives to protect their citizens from this potential toxic terrorist threat.

After learning the extent and frequency of toxic shipments within a stone's throw of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington, D.C., council passed a temporary, 90-day ban on highway and rail transport of certain explosives, flammable gases and poisonous materials through the nation's capital without a permit. Such shipments would have to be rerouted around the city. Rail company CSX Corporation immediately sought an injunction to stop the ban but it was denied in district court. …