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Hazardous cargo raises safety concerns

(The following article by Jeff Claassen was posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on February 7.)

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Almost half the people in Tarrant County live close enough to railroad tracks to be at risk if a derailment spilled hazardous cargo, yet there is no way for residents to know what trains carry through their neighborhoods.

Soon, even less information could be available. Worried about terrorism, federal officials are considering stripping the large toxic-chemical warning labels from cargo trains, which would remove the only indicator available to the general public.

At the same time, officials are considering plans to reroute trains carrying hazardous cargo around metropolitan areas. The cost, however, could run to billions of dollars.

"You can have 24 trains going through some crossings every day, one an hour," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Taylor, who has worked on possible rail relocations in and near Austin. "You're mixing a high density of freight rail capacity and people living right next to the tracks. You get bad accidents, and humans don't win."

A January derailment in South Carolina that killed nine people and prompted a mile-wide evacuation, as well as two that killed four people last year in San Antonio, have revived a national discussion about rail safety.

Spokesmen for the railroads point to the advantage of using trains: Trucks are more expensive for hauling cargo long distances and are 16 times more likely to have an accident that spills chemicals or other hazardous cargo.

Tarrant County has not had a fatal derailment in at least 30 years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. But activists and officials worried about cargo trains say that rail cars are dangerous because one can carry as much material as three or four trucks.

Trucks carrying deadly chemicals and other hazardous cargo must use specific freeways when moving through metro areas. But no such limits exist for train shipments, according to officials with emergency-response departments and other agencies.

Chemicals accounted for about 10 percent of train cargo, or 160 million tons, in 2003, according to the Association of American Railroads. Trains carry a wide range of chemicals, including chlorine and ammonia, which can be deadly when released into the air.

Federal laws require hazardous cargo to be carried in fortified container cars, with the strictest requirements for radioactive waste, emergency-response officials said. Engineers must also carry lists, or manifests, of what is on each train.

Local worries

About 324 miles of tracks run through Tarrant County, and about 650,000 people -- or 45 percent of the population -- live within a mile of them. Even a small spill could affect thousands: More than 26,000 people live within 100 yards of tracks, according to a Star-Telegram analysis.

Several Tarrant residents living near tracks said the recent news reports created at least momentary anxiety.

"I wonder what is on those trains," said Mark Jones, who has lived near the Union Pacific railroad tracks off Oakland Boulevard in east Fort Worth for about 10 years.

Others said they don't worry at all.

"I've lived in the same spot for 56 years," said Traci Hubbard, who lives near Jones. "We've grown up with the trains, and so have our kids."

In Colleyville, the Tarantula Train's vintage engine and rail cars roll past Michael Leathers' house, sharing the tracks with cargo trains and the right-of-way with joggers and bicyclists, who use a nearby concrete path.

"We assume it's OK and that the railroad companies take the precautions they have to," Leathers said. "I'm sure they're inspected on a regular basis."

Until last year, cargo trains were also a largely overlooked part of the landscape in San Antonio and surrounding Bexar County.

In June, a train carrying chlorine gas, which is crucial for water purification, derailed south of the city. A conductor and two people in a nearby neighborhood died from inhaling the fumes.

In November, a train careered out of control in an industrial area near downtown, burst through the wall of a storage building and killed an office worker.

The death toll from those accidents and others has prompted officials in San Antonio and elsewhere to look for new ways to deal with cargo trains.

"We have a $500,000 study with the Texas Department of Transportation looking at moving train traffic, looping it around the city," said Nelson Wolff, the Bexar County judge. "It will take a combination of state, federal and local money to do it. The government really needs to step up and be part of the solution."

Rerouting trains

In the fall, Wolff and other politicians from the San Antonio area lobbied officials in Washington, D.C., for tougher safety enforcement and federal funds for rail relocation.

That debate hit home in Washington just a few months later. The deadly South Carolina derailment, which spilled chlorine gas, led to the realization that cargo trains pass within four blocks of Congress.

Last week, the D.C. City Council banned hazardous shipments through the city for three months. The council may vote on a permanent ban, which requires congressional approval.

Rail lines through cities remain busy, but many rural lines have been sold or abandoned because they didn't generate enough revenue to compete with the trucking industry, said transportation and railroad officials.

Now Wolff and other officials hope some of those old lines can be put to use -- or that new ones can be constructed.

"It has been 150 years since new rail lines were built," said Krusee, the Taylor lawmaker. "Our cities have grown around the railroads. All these railroad crossings have been added. It can take more than a day for a cargo train to get through a major city, and a week to cross the state."

Officials in North Texas are also studying ways to route long-distance cargo trains around the metro area. Officials in Austin expect rail relocation to be discussed during this legislative session.

The solution carries its own problem: a huge price tag. Advocates of rail relocation, such as Robert Nichols, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, point to the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles. It cost $2.4 billion to replace grade crossings with overpasses, consolidate some rail lines and run the tracks underground in some areas.

"Where is the money going to come from?" said Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

It won't come from the railroads, which are facing stiff competition from truckers, White said.

Uncertain future

Some Texas officials say rail relocation could be a key part of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of new highways and other transportation lines that would run from border to border and bypass cities, easing truck traffic on interstates.

Gov. Rick Perry has lobbied hard for the extensive project, which would be built by a Spanish contractor and other companies that would collect tolls for 50 years to pay for it. The contractors, however, have no substantial plans for new rail until 2020.

And at the rate North Texas is growing, by the time the tracks are built, new neighborhoods might have already spread out to meet them, said Juan Ortiz, emergency management coordinator for Tarrant County and Fort Worth.

"We might find ourselves moving railroads fairly often," Ortiz said. "Would we have to keep moving rail lines every 10 or 20 years?"

In the meantime, residents will have to take it on faith that the railroads and the government are protecting them.

Before 9-11, government and railroad officials said disclosure would force shippers to reveal sensitive information to business rivals.

Since the attacks, officials have said that releasing details about hazardous shipments exposes trains and trucks to terrorists.

"It does not make any sense to make that kind of information public," said White, of the railroad association.

But sealing off information can hide a lack of action by the government, said Rick Blum, whose organization, OpenTheGovernment.org, provides an online search of pollution records.

Secrecy also prevents the public from taking part in the debate on how to make cargo trains safer, he said.

"The public has to be part of this discussion," Blum said. "Instead, we're seeing a very tall brick wall being put up between the government and the public. We're afraid that wall is only hiding inaction and embarrassment."

IN THE KNOW

Trains and Tarrant County

Tarrant has long been a busy rail hub. Some facts about the local traffic:

o Lots of track: Tarrant County has 324 miles of rail lines. The county's freeways and highways, by comparison, span 422 miles.

o Heavy traffic: Most Tarrant County rails are busy. The busiest, with 21 to 30 trains a day, are tracks that run from the Dallas County border through central Arlington to downtown Fort Worth, and north and south from downtown Fort Worth to the county border.

o Accidents: Seventy-seven derailments from January 2003 to October 2004 injured four railroad workers and caused $5 million in damage. Most were at low speeds in rail yards or other places. Twelve were at 20 mph or faster.

o Collisions: Thirty-five trains hit vehicles at crossings from January 2003 to October 2004, killing one motorist and injuring nine others. Five of the crashes came when drivers went around the safety gates.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

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