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Editorial: The railroads’ burden

(The following editorial by Bud Shuster was posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website on February 2. Bud Shuster, who long represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House, is the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He now serves as adviser to the Association of American Railroads.)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Not many people realize that the nation’s privately owned freight railroads are required by law to carry hazardous materials. Railroads would rather not carry hazardous material but railroads -- unlike other transportation businesses -- cannot refuse to ship even the most dangerous chemicals.

They would if they could.

Instead, each day, freight railroads shoulder the tremendous responsibility of moving hazardous material across this nation to serve areas such as Pittsburgh, which uses these chemicals to purify its water supply.

Rail is the safest way to transport hazardous materials, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Rail is 16 times safer than trucks for moving hazardous material, according to U.S. DOT statistics. About 99.997 percent of all rail-shipped hazmat is delivered safely, and since 1980, hazmat accident rates have declined by a whopping 86 percent.

The rail industry has been leading the way to find real solutions to security issues that have emerged since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In fact, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (more recently the secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) credits the railroad industry as being the first private-sector industry to step up to the plate after 9/11 with meaningful security measures.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, railroads adopted a comprehensive, risk-based security plan designed to prevent an attack from happening in the first place. This risk-based approach was designed by terrorism experts and takes into account terrorists’ tactics and capabilities. Railroads have made more than 50 permanent changes in the way they do business to improve security; more than 100 additional actions have been taken at higher threat levels.

Recent stories in the Trib (“Terror on the Tracks,” January 14 and 15) lead readers to believe that railroad security is lacking if a reporter can place a business card on a tank car. For that matter, a reporter could place a business card on any of America’s commuter rail cars, buses or trucks carrying hazardous material. Does that mean we should put armed guards on every subway car, on every bus, or every place a truck stops and parks?

Of all transportation modes -- freight or passenger -- freight railroads are the least-inviting target, according to terrorism experts. That is primarily due to the complexity of the freight rail pickup, batching and delivery system, making it extraordinarily difficult for a terrorist to succeed in meeting his goal.

Terrorists do not want to fail. With much greater certainty for success, a terrorist could drive a truck loaded with explosives -- or hazardous chemicals -- into the heart of any major metropolitan area and create more chaos and destruction. Perhaps that’s why Timothy McVeigh chose to carry out his attack on Oklahoma City via truck, not freight rail.

According to Homeland Security, there is no indication that terrorists are plotting an attack on the nation’s freight railroads. Terrorists have attacked passenger rail lines around the world but freight railroads have not been targeted by terrorists. And thanks to the efforts of the freight railroads, the risk that freight trains will become a target has been reduced even further.

Putting a fence around a rail yard may stop a reporter but it won’t stop a terrorist. The best way to prevent a terrorist attack is not to lock down our nation, but to disrupt terrorist plots before they are launched. That’s why railroads work closely with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other security agencies to share and interpret intelligence. The railroad industry is the only industry that has provided a special security agent -- cleared to the top-secret level -- to sit on the National Joint Terrorism Task Force gathering and analyzing intelligence information with federal security officials on a daily basis.

The industry also has established a 24/7 operations center that is in constant communication with federal intelligence agencies and the operations centers of each of the nation’s major railroads. This gives railroads and law enforcement the ability to react quickly, decisively and appropriately in the case of a possible terrorist threat.

As long as railroads are required to carry hazardous materials, they will do so safely and securely, working to continually improve their excellent safety record.

Friday, February 2, 2007

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