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Hazardous rail cargoes easy terror targets, union says

(The following story by David Patch appeared on the Toledo Blade website on August 1.)

TOLEDO, Ohio ó Inadequate security exposes millions of tons of hazardous materials shipped annually by the nation's railroads to terrorist attack, and the rail industry and the government have done little to train rail workers and emergency responders to deal with a chemical release, whether accidental or sabotage, the union representing train engineers and track maintenance workers charges.

Based on surveys filled out by 4,034 employees of 34 different railroads, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Rail Conference's "High Alert" report said trains carrying toxic cargoes like chlorine gas and ammonia are often left unattended or are delayed en route in places where unauthorized parties could gain access to them.

"The graffiti on some of these cars demonstrates the lack of security. People can walk right up to them," said Bob Kreuzer, a Teamsters Rail Conference organizer and representative. "It's a national problem. We need more government pressure on the rail companies to do something about this. Until they're forced to do more, they won't."

Peggy Wilhide, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, responded that the industry has a "pretty darned good" record of handling hazardous materials, with 99.997 percent of all shipments travelling without incident and only "a very miniscule" number involved in accidents resulting in leaks.

Railroads have cooperated with government requests to suspend hazardous-materials movements during large public events and heightened-alert periods, she said, even though there has never been a credible, specific threat directed against freight rail transportation.

Concern about railroads' handling of hazardous materials gained national attention in January, 2005, when chlorine released from a tank car ruptured in a Graniteville, S.C., crash killed nine people and injured hundreds of others.

Other recent accidents included a June, 2004, train collision in Macdona, Texas., in which a chlorine leak killed three people, and a January, 2002, derailment in Minot, N.D., in which anhydrous ammonia killed one man and caused eye and breathing problems for hundreds.

Chlorine and anhydrous ammonia represent about 80 percent of the toxic inhalation hazard chemical business railroads handle, Ms. Wilhide said. Such chemicals constitute the greatest public safety risk because they are transported under pressure and create vapor clouds if released.

The union report protested that while the federal Department of Homeland Security has spent about $20 billion securing aviation during the nearly five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, only $250 million has been devoted to railroad security and emergency training.

Amy Kudwa, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, responded that freight rail has its own division within the agency, and that "high-threat urban area" rail corridors have been identified for special attention. The locations of those corridors aren't publicized "for security reasons," she said.

Mike Wolever, Toledo's assistant fire chief and homeland security coordinator, said he believes Toledo firefighters have sufficient training support for hazardous materials, and that while there "probably could be more" security at local rail yards, "I'm not sure that there isn't adequate protection."

The biggest threat Chief Wolever perceives is a deliberate attempt to derail a train, "and that's hard to prevent."

The union also said that trains are poorly defended against hijacking, and that railroads' growing use of remote-control devices for yard switching further increases the risk, since yards often are near populated areas.

Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, one of three major railroads operating in the Toledo area, said his company has 21,200 route-miles of track that can't be monitored constantly.

"We do everything we can, working with public authorities, assessing vulnerabilities, and taking appropriate counter-measures," Mr. Husband said.

Mr. Husband questioned the report's timing, noting that it coincides with labor negotiations involving the major railroads and the unions, including the Teamsters-represented crafts.

Mr. Kreuzer said that while the report refers to manpower issues that also are on the negotiating table, the report is not a negotiating tactic. "The safety of the first responders, our crews, and the public, that is our main concern," he said.

Friday, August 4, 2006

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