Derailed Train Exposes Weakness in Rail Security

Stronger rail security could prevent an incident like last week's derailment in Washington, DC from being a major chemical disaster, writes PJ Crowley.

Last week’s CSX freight derailment in Washington, D.C. offers dramatic evidence of why the Bush administration’s existing approach to rail and chemical security is inadequate. The consequence of this runaway train is a serious but manageable environmental challenge, but it is a grim reminder that we have yet to adequately address one of the nation’s most serious homeland security vulnerabilities.

According to news reports, personnel moving cars around CSX’s Benning Yard complex failed to properly set a brake, causing a freight train loaded with coal to wander across an aging and inactive bridge that spans the Anacostia River. The bridge gave way and several rail cars plunged into the water. The rail yard sits within a couple of miles of the U.S. Capitol, a new baseball stadium, and other critical infrastructure.

While this accident posed no significant threat to the public, the fact that the train was carrying coal and not a far more dangerous hazardous material like chlorine gas is, unfortunately, a matter of private sector corporate policy rather than government security regulation.

Six years after 9/11, it would be logical to think that the federal government would have developed policies that reduce terrorism risk to target cities like Washington, D.C. Logical and wrong.

The presence of a deadly substance like chlorine gas on freight lines that pass within blocks of the U.S. Capitol, which was the intended target for United Flight 93 on 9/11, would provide Al Qaeda or its sympathizers with a pre-positioned improvised explosive device. Exploitation of dangerous chemicals is no longer theoretical. Al Qaeda in Iraq has attempted on multiple occasions to use chlorine tanker trucks as bombs.

Rather than formulating policies that reduce the volume of deadly toxic-inhalation-hazard or TIH chemicals that are being transported across the country, the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly pursued a path of least resistance that leaves cities like Washington unacceptably vulnerable.

In 2005, the District of Columbia, in the absence of any federal action on rail security, passed an ordinance that established a hazardous material exclusion zone in the heart of the city. The Bush administration joined CSX in successfully seeking an injunction blocking the measure. While the matter is still being litigated, CSX is voluntarily rerouting hazmat around Washington, D.C.

The federal government argued in court that it regulates railroads and that a national policy is preferable to a series of ad hoc local initiatives. Fair enough, but the Bush administration has failed to deliver an adequate national policy. The rail security rules it promulgated in late 2006, boiled down to the nitty-gritty, tell freight rail carriers to pay close attention to the bad stuff and keep it moving. Useful, but not sufficient.

Congress weighed in earlier this year. As part of the 9/11 Commission Recommendation Implementation Act of 2007, freight rail carriers must evaluate routing options for hazardous materials and choose the one that is both safest and most secure. That judgment is left up to the rail industry, which still believes that the “most secure” route is the straightest line between two points, in this case straight through Washington, D.C.

Rail carriers like CSX repeatedly conflate safety and security, even though they are very different challenges. Put a chlorine rail car next to the U.S. Capitol and you pique Al Qaeda’s interest. Route the train through rural Maryland and Virginia and the rail system loses its appeal as a potential target.

Rail and chemical security are inexorably linked. CSX as a common carrier is obligated to haul what its customers produce or use. An effective security regime must look at the chemical supply chain from manufacture and storage to transportation and use. It should have as a specific policy objective reducing the volume of acutely hazardous materials manufactured, used, and transported today by promoting proven alternative technologies and business practices that cannot be exploited by terrorists.

The Bush administration is not an advocate of inherently safer technology alternatives, also known as IST. Congress passed temporary chemical security legislation in September 2006. While IST was included in the version that passed the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, it was dropped in the final bill following intensive lobbying by the White House and industry. These shortcomings should be remedied when the next administration and Congress consider permanent chemical security legislation in 2009.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff insists, whenever discussing rail and chemical security, that he is in the business of managing, not reducing risk. Last week’s runaway train underscores how short-sighted this view is.

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