The Federal Railroad Administration has proposed what it calls "sweeping" and "revolutionary" changes in standards for the construction of the railroad tank cars that carry the most dangerous chemicals through American communities.
The new rules would strengthen the tankers to prevent penetration and ruptures at speeds up to 30 mph and slow some freights hauling dangerous cargo until the older tankers are replaced.
Railroads and chemical companies would have to replace half the 15,300 tank cars used to transport chlorine and anhydrous ammonia with stronger models within five years of the rules' enactment. The entire fleet would be replaced within eight years.
A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon welcomed the FRA proposal.
"Given the history of train derailments, particularly tanker cars, in Baltimore, anything that decreases the potential for a chemical leak of a dangerous spill in Baltimore ... we're in favor of," Sterling Clifford said.
The railroad industry, in a statement from the Association of American Railroads, said it would need more time to study the 186-page FRA proposal.
But the trade group expressed hope that the FRA's action "will be a step forward in our quest to further improve the safety of cars carrying these extremely dangerous materials that railroads are forced to carry under federal law."
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H. Boardman has said he wants to have the new rules in place before the Bush administration leaves office in January 2009. There will be 60 days of public comment on the proposal, said FRA spokesman Steve Kulm. After that, the agency will incorporate any suggested changes they feel are warranted and then conduct a final administrative review before issuing the new rules.
Baltimoreans became painfully aware of the hazards posed by the freight trains in their midst after a 60-car CSX train derailed deep in the century-old Howard Street Tunnel in July 2001.
Although no chlorine or anhydrous ammonia was involved, the accident ignited a fire that burned for days. Smoke billowed from both ends of the tunnel and wafted across parts of downtown Baltimore.
Smoke, and a fear of toxic gas releases, closed downtown businesses, diverted traffic and canceled major league baseball games. Rail transport through the region was snarled.
No one died, and only a few people had to be treated for minor injuries. The cargo manifest showed none of the most dangerous materials that firefighters had feared they might encounter.
But the accident and fire were costly to the city. The price tag was estimated at $4.5 million in overtime and materials. Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley sued CSX for $10 million and settled the case for $2 million in 2006.
Other cities have been less fortunate.
On Jan. 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific freight derailed in Minot, N.D. Five tank cars ruptured, releasing 147,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, which is used in fertilizer. The deadly cloud drifted over Minot. One person died, and 11 were seriously injured.
Twelve people died when chlorine gas escaped from tank cars after similar accidents in Macdona, Texas, in 2004 and Graniteville, S.C., in 2005. The Graniteville wreck released 60 tons of poisonous liquefied chlorine.
"The Minot crash really got us looking at the issue" of tank car safety, Kulm said.
Nearly 40 percent of all rail cargoes classified as "poisonous inhalation hazard" involve chlorine, Kulm said. Another 39 percent involve anhydrous ammonia. Most of the rest is ethylene oxide, an industrial chemical used as a sterilizing agent and in the manufacture of antifreeze.
Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said the industry transports about 100,000 carloads of PIH chemicals annually in the United States.
"Overall, we move more than 30 million carloads of freight a year, so these substances make up only about one third of 1 percent of total rail volume," he said.
As the new rules were being formulated, the FRA held a series of public meetings, inviting input from the nation's freight railroads and chemical industry.
Kulm said the rail industry had sought to offer its own plans for tank car design but was asked to hold off until the FRA completed its work. "They wanted more incremental improvements; ours were more of a revolutionary type jump in safety," he said.
The new performance standards seek to increase by 500 percent the amount of energy the tankers are designed to absorb without penetration or rupture. The railroads could meet that standard with any mix of innovative designs, better materials and new technologies, and in combination with slower speeds.
The FRA rules would also set a speed limit of 50 mph for PIH tankers, a limit the agency said is already being voluntarily met by the railroads for most PIH shipments.
But until stronger tankers are on the rails, PIH speeds would be limited to 30 mph along some stretches of track that lack signaling equipment.
All told, the FRA estimated the net costs of the conversions to the railroads, when weighed against the potential savings through the prevention of deaths, injuries, property damage and litigation, at $665 million over 30 years.
If improvements already launched or planned by the industry are subtracted, the new federal rules would cost the industry $350 million over 30 years, the FRA estimated.