Learning from the Vegas tanker scare

Fortunately for Las Vegas, the recent incident involving a runaway rail tanker filled with chlorine gas was only a frightening “wake-up” call — not the catastrophe it could have been should it have derailed or exploded. Officials in your area, particularly Rep. Jon Porter, should be commended for calling all parties to the table to understand how this happened and where responsibility lies. But considering the potential destruction this incident posed, much more needs to be done.

As head of Citizens for Rail Safety (CRS) — an advisory group on rail safety — and a participant at Rep. Porter’s forum on the subject, I would advise looking far beyond the apologies of the railroad industry or the limited changes made to these particular tracks. Instead, I would use this frightening incident as impetus to look more closely at the threats within our national rail system.

CRS reports on a number of issues regarding the safety, security and capacity of our railroads, including hazardous waste transport and the involvement of trains in terrorist acts. Las Vegas’ runaway tanker incident provides a dangerous example of two of our main areas of focus.

We have found through our research that the majority of Americans are unaware of the fact that more than 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials are transported every year through cities, towns and rural areas throughout the country. Trains carrying combustible substances such a ammonia, alcohol and chlorine almost always arrive at their destinations safely but the few that don’t have caused enormous destruction — from loss of life through contamination, to environmental damage to millions in response and cleanup costs.

Not all chemical spills involving rail cars pose as great a threat as a runaway chlorine tanker speeding through downtown Las Vegas, but just one — at that kind of scale — would be too many. To avoid such a scenario, we must act immediately to provide better oversight of the entire process by which hazardous materials are transported, including:

— More accountability from the private carriers who haul the material.

— Better coordination among the many parties that move and regulate materials as well as those who investigate spills.

— More time and money into better training our first responders.

The near-miss incident in Las Vegas — with predictions of a doomsday scenario — was not lost on anyone in post-9/11 America who has a sense of what terrorists are after. The potential use of our railroads as terrorist targets or weapons, is, above all else, the most important lesson we can learn from this summer incident.

Earlier this year, Citizens for Rail Safety sponsored a report conducted by Penn State University on the potential for and response to the use of railways as terrorist targets and/or weapons. While there needs to be far more research done on the subject, our study concluded that the threat of terrorism by rail is very real while the plan to counter such an event — or even respond to it — is all but nonexistent.

The Penn State study found that:

— Both urban commuter cars and those carrying freight are prime targets for terrorist attacks, yet, 60 times more funding is directed to airline security than rail security.

— Traditional approaches to rail security, focusing on policing and cordoning off of sites are inadequate to provide security against post-9/11 terrorist threats. The North American rail network is too vast and diverse to be protected simply through more policing, surveillance or anti-trespass measures.

— There is a lack of coordination among those involved in rail security. Responsibilities for rail security remain divided among a number of federal agencies; between federal and state agencies; between government and the private sector; and between shippers, users and providers.

Enhanced training of rail personnel to deal with both the prevention of terrorism and its aftermath is necessary, and should be a shared public and private responsibility.

This summer, Congress passed the Railroad and Public Transportation Security Act, providing some money to address these and other issues. It is a good start but considering the enormity of the problem, much more needs to be done.

Sadly, since 9/11 Americans are no longer immune to mass destruction — nor should we be passive about pre-empting what we now know can happen — anywhere, anytime.

Patricia Abbate is the executive director of Citizens for Rail Safety, a national public interest group dedicated to improving the safety, security and capacity of our nation’s railroads.

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