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U.S. trains carry same fuels on Inland tracks

(The following article by Bradley Weaver was posted on the Press-Enterprise website on April 23.)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The same flammable substances aboard the ill-fated North Korean trains that collided and exploded at a railroad station Thursday are carried daily on tracks that crisscross the Inland area.

Yet railroad officials say such catastrophes are unlikely here and trains remain safer than highways for shipping explosive materials.

Some federal and local officials, though, are stepping up their support for a national train security system that they say could better prevent rail disasters.

Last year, there were 24 train accidents in the United States involving rail shipments of hazardous materials. There were also 12 head-on collisions involving freight trains, according to Federal Railroad Administration officials.

Railroad regulations, which dictate everything from where hazardous materials can be placed on a train to the thickness of steel tankers that carry explosive materials, are reducing the risk of explosions during accidents, officials said.

"Overall, the system is very safe, but we're trying to make it safer," said spokesman Steve Kulm.

Kulm's group issued standards last year for the development of a new accident-prevention system.

The technology would combine wireless communication, computers and global satellites to prevent head-on rail collisions.

The technology could alert crews and dispatchers if trains are on a collision course. And if humans fail to respond, then a computer would pull the brakes.

The system could also track speeds and locations of trains and prevent derailments by slowing trains before they round curves.

Kulm said the technology is being tested on an Illinois railway but national implementation is still years away, he said.

One train in the North Korea collision reportedly carried oil and the other had liquefied petroleum gas.

Tom White, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Association of American Railroads, said a national security system could cost as much as $8 billion, which would force rail companies to increase freight charges and possibly lose business to trucks.

Moving train cargo onto highways isn't a good idea because accidents involving hazardous materials are more likely to occur on the roadways, he said.

"That's because trains don't have to share the right of way with automobiles," White said.

Rail officials say such technology might have alerted crews before the head-on crash between a Metrolink train and freight train in Orange County two years ago.

That accident, which was blamed on the freight-train crew, killed two Riverside County residents and injured 162 people.

"Safety is a growing concern because we have major rail companies going through Riverside," said Riverside County Transportation Commission spokesman John Standiford. "We have all the technology to enhance security but the cost is high and so far it hasn't been implemented."

Friday, April 23, 2004

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