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Tucson rail yard vulnerable, but watchful

(The following article was posted on the Tucson Citizen website on March 31.)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Driving the industrial streets that form the perimeter of Union Pacific's Tucson rail yard, there's not much to make an outsider feel welcome.
Fencing topped with razor wire or steel barbs borders much of the midtown yard south of 22nd Street, and signs at the few entrances where trucks roll in and out read: "No stopping or parking within 60 feet of gate."

Stacks of wooden pallets and concrete slabs obscure the view of rail cars carrying all manner of cargo – some deadly – through the Old Pueblo to its final destinations.

But open stretches where only mesquite trees and a dirt ravine lie between intruders and tanker cars full of lethal cargo make this rail yard, like others across the nation, a source of consternation for those who safeguard the nation.

"We've got cars coming up to Tucson from Mexico. We've got cars coming from the east, from El Paso," said Kris Mayes, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
"There's a lot of freight train traffic coming through Arizona, and there needs to be security. This is our port issue, really."

The federal government made securing the nation's airports a priority after terrorists used commercial jets as weapons in 2001. But progress toward safeguarding rail yards has been slow.

The Department of Homeland Security's budget totaled $40.7 billion in fiscal 2005, but less than 1/400th of that is dedicated to rail security.

"There's a wide gap there that needs to be closed," said Mayes.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware was compelled to introduce legislation last year forcing Homeland Security to take steps toward rail security for which the agency already was authorized.

It's with good reason that pressure to increase rail security is being applied.

According to a Naval Research Laboratory study, a single rail car containing chlorine could be turned into a weapon capable of killing 100,000 people in a populated area within 30 minutes.

With such deadly consequences possible, Mayes and other members of the Corporation Commission, who serve as the federal government's surrogate eyes on interstate transportation lines, are looking for tighter security in Arizona's rail yards.

"There's a lot of focus, for good reason, on commuter safety. But in Arizona, we have a lot more freight traffic than commuter traffic. They need more fencing, but frankly the biggest improvement that can be made is in terms of manpower," Mayes said.

Mark Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman, said railroads have stepped up security significantly since 9/11, but most of the changes escape the eye.

"We do have devices now scattered across the rail yard that watch, that listen," Davis said. "We have officers who are specially trained in surveillance, evidence reconstruction, a variety of specialties in law enforcement that one would find in a federal agency."

A long-standing relationship between rail companies and federal law enforcement helped to step up security after 9/11, Davis said.

But the key is a heightened sense of awareness among rank-and-file workers, Davis said.
"We're finding that not only are employees more vigilant, but citizens will call to report a suspicious vehicle next to the track. There are more eyes and ears out there," he said.

Having taken the company oath to operate within the law in pursuit of stories – not to mention having a healthful aversion to being arrested – I didn't test Union Pacific's eyes and ears on my tour around its yard.

But the New York Times recently sent reporters into a busy yard between Manhattan and Newark, N.J., where they found access easy and security lax.

Gates to the depot were unlocked and unguarded, and track switching devices were vulnerable to anyone who wanted to divert or possibly derail a train, the Times reported.
That paper's reporters say they spent 10 minutes loitering next to tanker cars filled with toxic chemicals without drawing attention.

Kerry Reeve, Homeland Security manager for Pima County, has faith the situation is better at Tucson's yard.

"I think they're making great strides and efforts to protect the railroad and the citizens who live around it," Reeve said. "They have very efficient systems in place to do that monitoring. But if there was an incident at the rail yard that was terrorism-based, we would work with our emergency response teams, and some of the best hazardous materials units are in the Tucson area."

That's reassuring for the thousands of Tucsonans who live within earshot of the trains that whistle through town day and night.

But given the lagging federal response to port security, border security and even relief aid to Americans living in the nation's own storm-torn regions, it's good to have officials closer to home pushing the issue.

Friday, March 31, 2006

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