Part 1: Las Vegas train safety derailed

(The following report by George Knapp appeared at on July 7.)

LAS VEGAS — Tons of deadly cargo passes through Las Vegas every day aboard Union Pacific rail cars. Although rail is statistically the safest transport system in the country, accidents do happen, such as the close call in Las Vegas 11 months ago.

You might remember the story of the runaway tanker car last August. The car was filled with chlorine, the building block of chlorine gas used in chemical warfare. It rolled all the way through the valley and could have killed thousands of people.

Nearly a year later, the railroad says Las Vegas doesn't have a right to know what's being shipped through the heart of the valley.

"We just had a tanker come flying by the railroad tracks. No locomotive at all. It was doing 35 to 40 miles an hour," said a caller to 911. The operators who took the first calls seemed mystified.

"I've got a runaway rail car going north," said the caller.

"What's it running away on?" asked the operator.

"The railroad tracks. There is no, uh, head on the train," said the caller.

The 8th call to police was from the railroad. It was an embarrassing admission. "Yeah, we just had a runaway rail car and we believe it's loaded with chlorine," said the Union Pacific caller.

"Do you have sight of it?" asked the operator.

"No, we lost sight of it but we are attempting to run it down right now," said the Union Pacific caller.

A tanker car filled with 30,000 gallons of deadly chlorine sped all the way across the Las Vegas valley and stopped only because it eventually rolled uphill.

The fact that it did not slam into a train parked on the tracks is considered miraculous by many. A later study estimated it could have killed up to 90,000 people if it had derailed in the middle of town.

The incident caused a brief media flap and then went away.

"This huge media feeding frenzy and everything -- this tanker car got away and how horrible is that? And I'm thinking to myself, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, every single day, every day of the week, there are multiple cars with this stuff in it in your downtown area,'" said Dr. Dale Carrison with the Nevada Homeland Security Commission.

Each year, millions of tons of deadly cargo move through the Union Pacific yards in Downtown Las Vegas -- explosives such as bombs, bullets, and grenades, flammable and combustible gases, fuels, poisons, you name it.

The wrong set of circumstances could mean disaster.

"It could cover miles in diameter," said Dr Carrison. "Hydrofluoric acid, it's one of the most corrosive agents that exists, if that was to be aerosolized through the air and spread, this is an agent that will pretty much dissolve anything."

"We were amazed at the tons and tons and tons of seriously dangerous chemicals that come through," said Irene Navis with Clark County Comprehensive Planning.

Clark County officials like Navis have more than one reason to be concerned about potential rail accidents. For one thing, they know that while railroads are statistically safe, accidents, collisions and derailments happen all the time. When they do, they are spectacular.

Local leaders also have to worry that an accident might take them out first. The Union Pacific tracks run through the heart of the valley.

In the downtown area, they pass within yards of the headquarters of nearly all of the key agencies which would respond to any large emergency; the Clark County Government Center, for instance, home to the hazmat program, City Hall, Metro Police, fire stations -- virtually every agency of local government is within spitting distance of the tracks.

"The police department, the fire department, all the local entities, our emergency manager, they would be called in to assist," said Navis. "They could be in harm's way, sure."

Following the runaway tanker incident, Union Pacific met with local governments and the Congressional Delegation and promised that steps would be taken.

But when officials like Mayor Oscar Goodman asked for basic notification, letting the valley know when dangerous stuff was heading our way, the railroad declined. Since this is interstate commerce, there's nothing local governments can do about it.

"If they don't have to report something to the local agencies, they just don't," said Navis.

Local agencies find out after the fact that a deadly shipment has passed through town. Why is it so hard for Union Pacific to give a heads up?

It just is, a California spokesperson told us, "The reason it would be so difficult is because, again, it's logistically -- it would be very, very difficult because we go through so many different communities that notification would be, again, logistically," said Zoe Richmond with Union Pacific. "We don't know exactly what time it would be coming through."

We mentioned to one Union Pacific employee that Mayor Goodman had asked the railroad to provide advance notice of dangerous shipments. The employee said the railroad was here long before Oscar and they'll still be here long after he's gone.

Goodman declined to comment for this story.

As bad as potential accidents might be, a greater threat might be terrorism. The I-Team infiltrated the rail yards and found security all but non-existent. Tuesday, we'll show you how real the terror threat might be.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

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