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Security project aims to thwart rail terrorists

(The following story by Jeffrey Leib appeared on the Denver Post website on June 25.)

PUEBLO, Colo. — The rail industry and federal security officials hope to construct an above-ground tunnel complex at the Transportation Technology Center here to test ways of protecting trains and subway stations from terrorist attacks and accidents.

Top scientists and engineers from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies toured the center last week to assess the technical challenges of developing full-scale rail safety and security tests.

"I'm concerned about trains and tunnels; I'm concerned about bridges; I'm concerned about the cars and the people," said Mary Ellen Hynes, director of research for Homeland Security's infrastructure geophysical division in Washington, D.C., as she visited the site.

"Our efforts are to understand how tunnels behave under blast loads and how we can make them safer, how they can be hardened externally, hardened internally" and how improvements can be made to passenger cars, Hynes said.

Following train bombings in Madrid, Spain; London; and Mumbai, India, officials are exploring new techniques for securing rail systems, including subways, in the United States.

As Homeland Security representatives watched, a team training to respond to a rail emergency worked to stanch a chemical-tank-car leak that simulated a toxic release. Liquid gushed from the tank as team members took wrenches to pipe flanges and valves in an exercise aimed at developing skills for first responders to rail emergencies.

They worked at noon, in 97-degree heat under a fierce sun.

"Imagine doing this in a tunnel when the lights are out," Hynes said.

The proposed simulated underground train would provide that experience.

Rail center serves world

Congress still must approve final funding for the tunnel. U.S. Rep. John Salazar, a Democrat from Manassa, said a major hurdle was crossed recently when a House transportation committee approved $18 million for the project.

"It has the potential to be a tremendous asset to our research," Hynes said of the venture.

The technology center has been doing crash testing of freight and passenger cars for decades. About 2,000 people a year get instruction at the Pueblo operation's Emergency Response Training Center, said Ruben Peña, deputy director of the company that runs the technology center. As head of its Washington, D.C., office, Peña is soliciting more work from federal agencies for the center, which also does maritime and highway safety research.

The technology center covers 52 square miles, has 48 miles of track and is operated by the Association of American Railroads under a contract with the Federal Railroad Administration.

It does work with railroad counterparts in China, India and numerous other countries, many of which send officials to Pueblo.

Visitors last week watched workers prepare a tank car for a crash test. Next month, officials will ram a railcar filled with tons of pressurized liquid simulating chlorine. The tank car is being outfitted with instruments and sensors to record impact forces and collect other data.

The transportation of chlorine and other chemicals that threaten people with the inhalation of toxic gases is of particular concern to Homeland Security officials because a release from a ruptured tank - whether from a derailment or terrorist attack - could kill or injure many.

Chlorine is transported as a liquid under pressure in tank cars, but it can release as a deadly gas following a rupture.

In January 2005, nine people were killed in South Carolina after a train derailment that caused a tank car hauling chlorine to break open and expel a toxic cloud.

Officials are considering new tank-car construction standards that would strengthen critical parts of the car body.

Collecting valuable clues

Christopher Smith, a scientist at DHS's transportation-security laboratory in Atlantic City, N.J., said the tank-car test could yield valuable clues on the dispersal of chlorine following a breach.

"One thing we're not too sure about is the state (in which) the chlorine comes out," said Smith, who may return to Pueblo for the test. "I'm certainly interested in seeing the results."

Mitchell Erickson, Homeland Security's chief scientist, said testing such as this helps his agency refine "plume models" on the dispersion of toxic chemicals.

He, Smith and officials from the Engineer Research and Development Center, an Army Corps of Engineers affiliate in Vicksburg, Miss., joined Hynes on last week's tour.

The above-ground tunnel and rail-station complex "is a perfect fit for the role (the center) offers to the world in railway technologies," Peña said.

It is expected to be part of a passenger and freight railcar security facility that will train responders to deal with biological, chemical, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats.

"Part of our challenge is to do full-scale testing that's affordable," said Hynes, who adds that her agency does scale tests on disaster responses and then uses calculations to predict full-scale impacts.

Testing at a future tunnel complex, she said, "will give us confidence in our numerical models."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

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