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Railroad security still has weak spots

(The following article by Dan Ronan was posted on Dallas television station WFAA-TV’s website on May 13.)

DALLAS -- U.S. railroads insist their safety record is excellent.

However, every day freight cars carrying hazardous chemicals travel through North Texas' urban areas, and some railroad safety experts believe a deadly accident or act of terrorism is just waiting to happen.

Countless miles of railroad track wind through the area, passing through big rail yards near downtown Fort Worth and Dallas.

"Texas has more railroads than any other state," said railroad safety expert Allen Haley.

"Tank cars are flowing through Dallas, 24 hours a day," said Capt. John Ostroski of Dallas Fire-Rescue.

Thousands of gallons of potentially hazardous chemicals are transported into the cities each day. Most is done legally and safely, but there are always concerns.

"Any city that has a railway or major highway going through it is bound to have a hazardous materials incident," said Garland Fire Capt. David Gott.

Whether an accident or a deliberate act, local hazmat crews said it's by far the most dangerous thing they train for several times a year.

"Governmental regulations about railroad cars have been very strictly enforced, and improved," said Haley.

But yet, there are still vulnerable areas. Haley and other veteran rail safety experts contacted by News 8 said railroads must do a better job keeping track of where trains are parked, and protecting freight yards.

"We generally rely on 'no tresspassing' signs," Haley said. "That's how we keep people out."

With the enormous amount of activity, the railroads said it's not practical to secure railyards to the level of airports. The railroads, not the government, are responsible for policing their facilities.

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail officials turned down News 8's requests for interviews. But a Union Pacific spokesman said the railroad's yards are well-protected, and their safety record is excellent.

Federal law said trains carrying chemicals can only be parked for two days before being moved. But Haley said that often becomes three or four when railroads are busy - and there are not enough inspectors to enforce the law.

Outside Union Pacific's Centennial yards in Fort Worth, some trains are parked miles away under what experts say is minimal security. News 8 videotaped a train car underneath a major downtown highway intersection, near a busy exit ramp.

"I can't even begin to tell you how big an explosion one single loaded car of ethalyne oxide would produce," Haley said.

Governor Rick Perry and Union Pacific officials said they're taking important steps to make railroads safer. Recently, they've discussed the possibly of moving some railyards out of the central part of major cities. However, that process would take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since September 11, most big cities - including Fort Worth and Dallas - have spent millions of dollars to better equip firefighters for a hazmat incident.

"The key is to ensure that we know what is in the tank cars, and know everyone along the route is properly prepared," said Ellen Engleman Conners of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Haley said cities need to conduct more drills, preparing for a disaster he hopes never happens.

"We cannot be complacent here and say rail is safe," he said. "It is, but there is the potential for it becoming a weapon."

Monday, May 16, 2005

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