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Delays in service are feared due to DC hazmat ban

(The following article by Chip Jones was posted on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on February 20.)

RICHMOND, Va. -- A ban on transporting hazardous materials by rail through Washington is being closely watched by Virginia transportation officials who fear backups down the line.

Amtrak passenger trains and the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail use CSX Corp. tracks into Washington, creating the potential for delays if the ban on hazardous freight is enforced, rail officials said last week. The slowdowns could be felt as far south as Richmond's Acca Yard, already considered a major bottleneck for freight and passenger service.

"I know it won't help and expect at a minimum it will have some impact," said Karen J. Rae, director of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "What we're trying to monitor is how significant that impact will be."

CSX is seeking a preliminary injunction to block Washington's ordinance. A March 9 hearing has been set, but if a federal judge rules in the city's favor, the law would take effect March 19, according to a court order issued Thursday.

State and regional rail officials regularly face obstacles in keeping trains running on time, such as delays from track maintenance and bad weather.

If CSX must stop its trains for inspection by Washington authorities, there is the "potential for significant interruption of service," said Mark Roeber, a spokesman for the Virginia Railway Express, which carries thousands of commuters daily in Northern Virginia.

This in turn could slow freight and passenger trains in Richmond, officials said. CSX is making $65.7 million worth of state-funded upgrades of signals and tracks to improve service in the 100-mile corridor between Richmond and Washington.

Planning is under way to upgrade tracks from Acca Yard to Main Street Station for Amtrak trains that travel between Richmond and Newport News. Any delays in Washington could slow those trains, according to Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said the railroad would have to reroute 11,400 cars a day to comply with the pending law.

"The issue for us, and for the industry, is that all of the cars move in a network," he said. "We have well in excess of 1,000 trains a day across the system."

CSX has said in court filings that the Washington ordinance would increase the exposure and hazards of rail freight because of longer trips and more handling of freight.

But Washington officials, backed by environmental groups, say the District is a special case because it is a prime target for terrorist attacks.

They cite research saying that a cloud of poisonous gas from the explosion of a rail car carrying chlorine could kill as many as 100,000 people and sicken many more.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

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