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TSA to track rail shipments of toxic cargo

(The following article by Thomas Frank was posted on the USA Today website on January 21.)

WASHINGTON -- The government for the first time will monitor rail shipments of potentially deadly cargo passing through cities to make sure cars vulnerable to attack don’t sit unguarded for too long.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will start a nationwide tracking system in about a month to determine how long rail cars filled with lethal materials are stopped on tracks or sit in unsecured storage yards in urban areas.

Unguarded rail cars filled with toxic chemicals such as chlorine in cities are the single biggest terrorist threat related to the nation’s railroads, the TSA says.

The U.S. Naval Research Lab has said an attack on such a rail car could kill 100,000 people. Railroads carry 105,000 carloads of toxic chemicals a year, and 1.6 million carloads of other hazardous materials such as explosives and radioactive items, the government says.

The new tracking system lets the TSA enforce an agreement it reached with railroads to cut the amount of time hazardous rail shipments spend unguarded in cities. The agreement, signed by the 257 railroads that transport toxic chemicals, aims to reduce by 25% this year the number of hours hazardous rail shipments sit unguarded in each of 46 major urban areas. “This immediately reduces the risk of a terrorist attack,” TSA chief Kip Hawley said. “These cars will not be sitting ducks.”

The TSA plans to send inspectors soon to areas where it finds toxic shipments unguarded for long periods and work on safety improvements. Railroads can give toxic cargo priority so it doesn’t sit on tracks waiting for other trains to pass, or store it in guarded yards.

The tracking comes as cities consider banning or restricting hazardous rail shipments. Local officials fear attacks and accidents like the fiery train derailment Tuesday near Louisville that spewed toxic smoke and forced people from homes, businesses and a school.

“Rerouting is by far the most important way to reduce risk,” said Fred Millar, a rail-safety advocate who helped enact a ban in Washington, D.C., in 2005, the nation’s first. “If you don’t reroute hazardous shipments, it’s not a serious program.”

Rail companies fear such laws would force them to send hazardous cargo hundreds of miles around cities. CSX Transportation blocked the Washington ordinance with a lawsuit that is pending.

Hawley said barring hazardous rail cargo from cities could force it onto trucks, which are more easily attacked and accident-prone. “You want to keep it on rail,” Hawley said.

Matthew Zone, a Cleveland city councilman who proposed barring hazardous cargo from one of that city’s four rail lines, called the TSA monitoring “a move in the right direction.”

Railroads carry two-thirds of shipped toxic chemicals, most of it chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer.

Monday, January 22, 2007

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