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New railroad security plan announced

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Leslie Miller on December 16.)

WASHINGTON -- The release of deadly chemicals from a rail car in a densely populated city could have catastrophic consequences, whether it's caused by a terrorist attack or a derailment. On Friday, transportation and homeland security officials proposed ways to make it harder for terrorists to attack rail cars — and less likely that an accident would result in mass casualties.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters wants rail companies to send poison gases, like chlorine or anhydrous ammonia, and other hazardous cargo along routes that pose the least danger for nearby residents.

Under the plan, railroads would have to identify the amount of hazardous material carried over each route, then use the information to select the safest way to move it.

The announcement of Peters' plan Friday followed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's proposal to tighten rail security. The public has 60 days to comment on each.

Democratic lawmakers immediately denounced the Homeland Security plan as too little, too late.

"This rule is long overdue," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We need to be doing so much more to protect our communities from potential disasters."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said he was dumbfounded that the rules only apply to high-threat urban areas — of which his state has none.

"New Haven and other cities where tens of thousands of citizens could be harmed by a chemical release should not be ignored," Lieberman said.

The Homeland Security plan would require freight and passenger rail systems to inspect rail cars and keep them in secure areas when not in use. Railroads also would have to lessen the amount of time that cars carrying dangerous chemicals are allowed to stand still, which is when they're most vulnerable to sabotage or attack, Chertoff said.

Democrats, set to take control of Congress next month, said they'd file bills to require stricter safety and security measures for railroads.

Schumer wants to double the number of hazardous materials inspectors and limit the age of rail cars carrying dangerous cargo. He also wants to raise the penalty for railroads found guilty of negligence in a fatal accident to a maximum of $10 million.

Several Democratic proposals would reroute hazardous materials away from places where an attack could do the most damage.

The District of Columbia passed a law in 2005 banning hazardous material shipments within 2.2 miles of the Capitol. CSX Transportation sued; the case is pending.

The rail industry fears that other cities would follow Washington's lead if the city prevails. Eight other cities — Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis and Albany and Buffalo, N.Y. — have introduced legislation to ban hazardous shipments.

Railroads say forcing trains to take longer, circuitous routes would create a safety hazard by increasing the likelihood of an accident.

Ed Hamburger, president of the Association of American Railroads, said railroads have already taken steps to tighten security. They have increased rail car inspections, set up an operations center to share intelligence with the government and improved the security of information systems, he said.

Monday, December 18, 2006

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