Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

A SAFER TRACK? despite Some High-Profile (Albeit Nonlethal) Accidents, Railroads Are Becoming Safer. Jacksonville's CSX Corp. Is Getting Safer the Fastest, but Critics Say without More Federal Oversight, There's Still a Long Way to Go

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

A SAFER TRACK? despite Some High-Profile (Albeit Nonlethal) Accidents, Railroads Are Becoming Safer. Jacksonville's CSX Corp. Is Getting Safer the Fastest, but Critics Say without More Federal Oversight, There's Still a Long Way to Go

Article excerpt

Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS

Anna Garcia was drifting off to sleep when she heard the train.

It began with the usual noises, noises she was used to: Living just a couple dozen yards from the railroad tracks, Garcia often fell asleep to the sound of chugging locomotives and rumbling wheels.

Then the noises changed.

"It got louder and started screeching and squealing and grinding," Garcia said last week in a telephone conversation. "It shook my windows. I went to my son's room and looked out the window and then I saw it explode. I could feel the heat on my face through the window."

The 80-car freight train had come off the track, sending 12 cars filled with hazardous chemicals into front yards in this residential neighborhood in Bullitt County, Ky., about half an hour south of Louisville.

Weeks later, cleanup crews are still working at the scene of the Jan. 16 crash, the largest experienced by Jacksonville-based CSX Corp. since a massive accident in Baltimore in 2001. Fifteen Kentucky families are still out of their homes, although no one was seriously injured in the wreck.

SPEED BUMP ON ROAD THE TO IMPROVEMENT

This year has started badly for CSX: Of the four major accidents being investigated by the Federal Railroad Administration's main office so far this year, three of them involved the company's trains.

The crash that led to Anna and Mike Garcia and their 3-year-old son still needing to stay in a hotel followed an accident in Central Kentucky the day before in which four cars slipped onto the mainline, running for miles before hitting locomotives that the company had put out to stop them. That crash released some 30,000 gallons of flammable butyl acetate, causing the Kentucky River to catch fire and requiring evacuation of the area.

The Kentucky accidents came on the heels of an incident on Jan. 4 in which a CSX car carrying 28,000 gallons of methanol caught fire in the rail yard in Selkirk, N.Y., and were followed by a crash in West Virginia on Feb. 6 in which 18 cars, 10 of which were carrying hazardous chemicals, derailed in West Virginia, although none of the chemicals spilled.

The slew of accidents is actually an anomaly for CSX, at least in recent years. The third-largest railroad in the country and the largest in the Eastern United States, CSX has seen a strong, steady decline in the total number of accidents and incidents, a category that includes pretty much any problem involving a train, whether it's in a trainyard or running the tracks.

Since a peak of railroad problems in the late 1990s, the four major U.S. railroads have seen improvement in recent years, with CSX seeing the biggest drop in accidents and incidents since 2003.

The decrease, said Jim Marks, CSX's vice president of safety, stems from a confluence of factors: Millions of dollars invested in improving infrastructure, the deployment of cutting-edge technology, an increased focus on training among its workforce.

"We're improving our human factor at the fastest rate of any Class I railroad," Marks said.

Still, as an industry, railroads have room for improvement, according to a range of federal agencies and outside experts.

"They have improved over the years but they have a long way to go," said Larry Mann, principal draftsman of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 and now an attorney representing railroad workers. "The problem endemic in the industry is federal oversight is very poor."

In a report issued last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said it was unclear how effective Federal Railroad Administration programs are in making trains safer, but contrasted the 400 field inspectors the agency has with the 219,000 miles of track in operation.

HAZMAT ACCIDENTS DROP

As well as seeing the number of all crashes decrease, CSX has also cut the number of accidents it experiences involving hazardous materials, such as the butadiene, cyclohexane and maleic anhydride - flammable materials that can also cause inhalation problems - carried by the train that derailed in Kentucky. …

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