Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Threat on the Rails

A relatively brief report by the Citizens for Rail Safety highlights the threat of a catastrophe on the nation's railroads. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are some highlights:

Just one 90-ton rail car of chlorine, whether involved in an accident or act of terrorism, could create a toxic cloud 40 miles long and 10 miles wide and could kill as many as 100,000 people in 30 minutes.

Railroads in the United States transport 1.8 million shipments of hazardous materials every year, using 100,000 tank cars, filled with such chemicals as chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, cyanide compounds, flammable liquids and pesticides. The result is one million tons of hazardous material being moving across the nation daily.

Between 1988 and 2003 there were 181 acts of terror, worldwide, involving railroads and related rail targets.

Though the vast majority, 99.98 percent according to the railroads, of Hazmat shipments arrive safely and without major incident, there are fatalities, hospitalizations, and/or evacuations every year from the escape of a large quantity of gases or liquids.
Making the problem more serious is the vulnerability of the railways. Rail cars pass through cities day and night, and it is not possible to physically secure all railways.
Rail cars, tracks, yards, and basic infrastructure are not sufficiently secure. They are not only poorly protected from possible terrorists, but often in poor maintenance, making them more vulnerable to accidents.

Rail Hazmat cars are extremely vulnerable when they sit for hours and even days and weeks, unattended and unsecured, along track sidings and in yards.
So, while perfect security for this sector is not possible, the report argues that improved training is not only essential but possible. The current state of training is "inadequate":
In-depth quality training for rail workers and community members is essential for saving lives and health. It is currently inadequate.

The typical emergency responders are poorly trained in responding to Hazmat incidents, especially involving rail, and usually have little knowledge of the rail infrastructure in their communities or the chemicals moving through by rail.

Citizens in “rail communities” generally know little about the Hazmats moving through their towns and do not know what to do should there be an emergency. Rail Hazmats often run through densely populated areas.
One solution is better collaboration between railways and first responders in local communities:
There are few forums that bring together rail workers, emergency responders, and citizens to learn about and plan for rail Hazmat incidents. There are very few joint training exercises.

Many communities are without emergency action plans for rail emergencies.

Hazmat safety and health training saves lives. ... In Graniteville, South Carolina in 2005 a conductor lived because his military training taught him not to run, but to walk out of a cloud of chemical gas. Chlorine killed his engineer partner, who without training, ran and because of his deep inhalation of chlorine gas, ran to his death.
This is an important threat to consider. Safe, secure rail traffic is essential to protect lives. It has significant economic implications as well.

1 comment:

Citizens for Rail Safety said...

Citizens for Rail Safety, Inc. (CRS) unveiled a study today by Penn State University, detailing the improvements made upon the rail while highlighting the glaring holes and therefore opportunities for terrorism.

“Citizens have the right to know what travels through their communities,” said CRS Executive Director Patricia Abbate. “The time of disaster is not the time to start devising plans. There should be practices in place that facilitate a coherent and efficient response plan,” said Abbate.

Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, member of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Relations, said, "It is time to take common-sense steps to secure and monitor our rail stations and train platforms and train our rail workers adequately in terrorism evacuation and HAZMAT response. After the terrorist attacks against railways in Madrid, London and Mumbai and threats against the rail system in New York, further delay is simply inexcusable. That's why I'm proud the Democratic-led 110th Congress has made rail security a national priority. By passing comprehensive rail security legislation in March, we have already taken a significant step towards safeguarding America's rail systems and ensuring that our rail workers receive adequate security training. I am grateful to Citizens for Rail Safety for their ongoing public awareness campaign and thoughtful research on a number of critical rail security issues."

“Securing and Protecting America’s Rail System: U.S. Railroads and Opportunities for Terrorist Threats,” gives several recommendations to help ensure the safety and security of the American railways.

First and foremost, information sharing among state, federal, and local leaders needs to be more open and available, and when appropriate this information should be shared with the public. The study states another vital issue that needs to be resolved is the increase in training of the rail workers for a possible terrorist attack. The preparedness of the nation’s rail workers is lacking in HAZMAT and terrorist training. Strategies for a response to an attack or the derailment of hazardous materials must be implemented with coordination of officials for evacuation and the informing of the public is imperative.

Perhaps the key issue the study uncovers is the delegation of responsibility for this training and security, and the importance of the role of the federal government. According to Penn State, “Congress needs to pass comprehensive rail security legislation and allocate adequate financial and administrative resources to enhance security efforts.” Presently the government allots $671 million for rail security compared to $15.8 billion for aviation security. The federal government must assist the private rail industry to preserve the public from a fatal event says the study.

The research in the study found that there are too many vulnerabilities to America’s rail system sighting the actions that took place in Madrid and London in recent years, lack of federal funding, policing, and training add up to the question of when will it happen?

CRS, a national non-profit public interest organization comprised of transportation consultants and concerned citizens advocating for national railroad safety and efficiency, is a member-supported organization. Membership is open to all citizens who feel that safe rail transportation is no longer a goal for the railroad industry, but is an obligation. Since its inception in 2005, CRS has commissioned four new reports. For access to the complete report and to learn more about CRS visit