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Opinion: Rail risks get short shrift

(The following editorial appeared on the USA Today website on January 12.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When a train wreck last Thursday punctured a tank car, releasing clouds of toxic chlorine gas, nine people were killed, hundreds were injured, and more than 5,000 were evacuated from the small town of Graniteville, S.C.

A tragic accident, and the magnitude, could have been far worse.

The train might have been rumbling through a major city, as tank cars carrying toxic chemicals do frequently. Or the punctured tank could have split wide open, as five cars did in a 2002 derailment near Minot, N.D., instantly releasing all of its deadly cargo.

While federal investigators in Graniteville focus on finding a culprit — the major suspect is an improperly set track switch — the green gas that rose over this small town should be a warning to address the risks of moving hazardous chemicals by rail — doubly so when rail systems are proven terrorist targets: Recall the train bombings in Madrid last March.

But any meaningful change appears unlikely. While the rail industry says a lot has been going on behind the scenes to address terrorism, there's little hard evidence of strategic thinking or government money aimed at hazardous train cargo. And there's plenty to think about.

o Vulnerable cars. After the 2002 Minot accident, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 60% of the nation's pressure tank cars, about 35,000 built before 1989, might be more vulnerable to fractures than cars built to standards adopted later. The cars, used to transport hazardous materials, pose a "real risk to the public," the board concluded last March. (The cars in the Graniteville accident were built after 1989.)

o Populated routes. In 2000, more than 1.2 million tank-car shipments of hazardous materials moved in the USA and Canada, many near big cities. In Atlanta, freight trains travel through the heart of downtown. In Washington, D.C., the tracks run a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. While federal officials say trains are frequently rerouted for security concerns, the rail industry has opposed efforts to permanently reroute hazardous cargo away from major cities, insisting that would simply shift the threat elsewhere.

o Scattered authority. The regulation of hazardous cargo has suffered from confusion over which federal department is supposed to do what, just as intelligence-gathering suffered from a hodgepodge of agencies and no clear leader. Last fall, two agencies involved signed an agreement defining their roles.

As with most security problems, solutions are elusive. If trains are rerouted to avoid cities, the risks may be transferred elsewhere, through communities less able to deal with accidents. Yet, in a worst-case scenario, a government scientist testified last year, a toxic release in a city can put 100,000 people at risk in less than 30 minutes, killing 100 people per second.

So far, that prospect — not to mention two high-profile accidents — has drawn little action. The question is whether it will, before a forgotten switch or a determined terrorist triggers an event that can't be ignored.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

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