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Anti-terror rules for trains rapped

(The following story by Mimi Hall appeared on the USA Today website on March 13.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. New anti-terrorism rules aimed at stopping companies from sending railway cars packed with toxic chemicals through cities may still leave large populations vulnerable, according to members of Congress and security experts.

The rules require rail companies to assess whether it would be safer to send cargo trains carrying chemicals to alternate routes around the nation's 60 largest cities. Critics say that rail companies won't reroute the trains because it would be too expensive.

"This is an ongoing horrendous risk," says Fred Millar, a national expert on the threat posed by rail cars filled with chemicals such as chlorine and ammonia. Millar said a rail car packed with chemicals could provide an inviting target to a terrorist.

The government's rule will go into effect this spring.

Steve Kulm of the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration, which wrote the new government rule, says he doesn't see a problem with giving rail companies leeway over where to send their chemical-carrying cars. "We're not interested in just shifting the risk from a big city to a medium-sized city," he says.

Assistant Administrator John Sammon at the department's Transportation Security Administration (TSA), says the nation's rail lines were "built in the 19th century, and many towns and cities were built up around them. In many cases, it's not feasible" to reroute trains.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has pushed for rerouting, says he will fight to keep the trains out of densely populated areas.

"These shipments of toxic chemicals are literally 'Hell on Wheels' rolling through our communities," he says.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this month that his department has tightened rail security in other ways.

Chertoff said voluntary agreements with rail companies have reduced the "dwell time" of unattended cars carrying dangerous chemicals. The dwell time refers to how long a rail shipment awaits pickup by a customer in a rail yard.

Chertoff didn't say how long shipments typically await pickup.

"We have dramatically reduced the vulnerability," Chertoff said. "The period of maximum vulnerability for a chemical on a rail line is not when it's moving along in a kind of random fashion. The chances of somebody being able to fire an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) at a tank in motion, are pretty small. The big danger is if it sits someplace for a day."

Officials at the TSA and at the Association of American Railroads (AAR) say the dwell time has been reduced by 40% over the past year.

Sammon says there are 110,000 shipments a year of deadly chemicals in 80-to-90-ton rail cars and that the TSA has made "a significant reduction" in the risk posed by those shipments.

The AAR's Peggy Wilhide says companies now are working to make sure that if a car filled with chlorine or another toxic chemical is delivered to a rail yard on a Friday night, it doesn't sit there until Monday morning waiting to be picked up by the company that ordered it. "We'd like them not to be sitting there at all," she says.

Markey says eliminating dwell time alone is not enough. "Every day tank cars pass through our urban centers carrying enough chlorine to kill or injure 100,000 people in half an hour," he says.

Millar agrees. He says the only safe solution is to keep toxic trains out of cities.

"Only if Secretary Chertoff thinks terrorists are terminally stupid and slow on the draw could he maintain that they cannot hit 90-ton, unarmored, slow-moving rail cars, clearly marked and so astonishingly accessible that they are often tagged with graffiti."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

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