Riding the rails


THE DEADLY CHLORINE spill from a train wreck near Graniteville, S.C., earlier this month has prompted residents of communities throughout the nation to look at their gritty rail yards and ask: Could it happen here?

With 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials chugging across the country by rail every year, the answer for any spot along the way has to be yes. In fact, it happened in Baltimore three years ago, though no one died when train cars carrying hydrochloric acid derailed and caught fire in the Howard Street tunnel.

What's also clear is that there is no way to eliminate the prospect of such disasters as long as toxic chemicals such as ammonia, propane, vinyl chloride and chlorine are moving about the country. The main alternative to trains is trucks, which have a higher accident rate - by 16 to 1.

Yet, assurances from the railroad industry that it's working on the problem of hazardous materials and doing its best are not reassuring. And its refusal to share shipping practices and schedules to help local officials respond to emergencies on the grounds that information may leak to terrorists sounds like a convenient excuse.

As Congress takes a new look at rail safety in the wake of the Graniteville accident, several recommendations from industry experts require immediate attention:

Upgrading standards for the pressurized tank cars that carry hazardous materials, and perhaps upgrading the existing fleet. Nearly half the fleet of these cars, which are owned by chemical companies, don't meet standards last raised in 1989, and even the newer ones are subject to rupture, as the Graniteville wreck showed.

Replacing manual switches that sometimes send trains onto an occupied track with computerized controls.

Hiring additional federal railroad inspectors, and imposing higher penalties for violating safety regulations.

Fostering greater cooperation with local authorities so first responders are prepared to deal with chemical emergencies.

Avoiding highly congested areas that could be terrorist targets. It may not be practical to reroute tanker trains around cities, other than perhaps Washington, on a regular basis, but that should be the policy everywhere during major events.

The danger of harmful chemical spills is far greater from an accident or error than a terrorist plot. Precautions should be shaped with that in mind. Baltimore officials are already taking one of the most useful steps they can, by phasing out the use of chlorine to treat wastewater, thus reducing the need to transport it here.

What's needed now is a broader federal policy to protect all other cities as well.

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