06/20/2007 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Next Railroad Catastrophe

In March Congress began debate to reauthorize the Federal Railroad Safety Program, not updated since 1994. Predictably the drafts are focusing upon a risk not noted in 1994: passengers targeted by terrorists. Terrorist threats have been a staple of Republican rhetoric and homeland security spending since 9/11, and discussion of the bill cite the London and Madrid attacks upon passengers. But these attacks upon passengers were trivial in their human consequence compared to what would happen if a railroad tank car with 90 tons of pressurized liquid chlorine were to be breached in a populated area. This is far more likely to happen because of a railroad accident than because of terrorists. Legislation should target the accident potential on our railroads and the huge concentrations of hazardous materials that move on them, rather than security guards and inspections of passengers.

It is true that, largely because of our invasion of Iraq, terrorists are becoming more sophisticated. In March, 2007, terrorists in Iraq started to use tanks of chlorine as destructive weapons. Fortunately, they killed just a handful because only 300 or so gallons of this deadly chemical were available. But if terrorists placed their bombs next to a railroad tank car with 90 tons of chlorine in Newark, Chicago, or Atlanta, they could, according to estimates supplied to the EPA by the chemical industry, harm four million people, killing many of them outright. We need to limit the size of these targets that are available both in case of a terrorist attack, and the far more predictable chance of a major accident. Legislation should limit the number of hazardous substances in any one train, make sure the tank cars are up to standard (less than half are at present), and route them around major cities.

Railroad accidents take place every day, and railroads carry extremely dangerous materials. This February a train accident near Oneida, NY resulted in two propane tank cars exploding. People had to be evacuated within a mile of the fire. Luckily, the accident was in a fairly remote area and the fire did not spread to all of the 40 propane cars. But if this had happened in a densely populated area the carnage could have been immense. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) was right on target when he said, "The real worry is that one day one of the rail cars will derail in a populated area."

Our modern, high-consumption society requires dangerous trains. Liquefied natural gas, chlorine, and many other hazardous chemicals routinely ride the rails through large cities, inviting accidents and, since they can hardly be guarded, terrorists. Graffiti covered tank cars can sit for hours in the downtowns of large cities, or pass slowly a few blocks from the White House. Imagine if the graffiti on them said "kill the infidels" or had a drawing of Osama bin Laden, rather than the harmless signs of gangs and artists. The government attempted to restrict the transport of hazardous chemicals through the Capitol, but the railroad industry has successfully stalled the effort.

Railroad tracks through populated areas constitute only a tiny fraction of the tracks in use, so almost all serious accidents to date have been in unpopulated or lightly populated areas, such as a small South Carolina town where chlorine gas killed eight people and sent 554 to hospitals, with nearly $7 million in property damage. Luckily only one of the three 90 ton tank cars of pressurized liquid chlorine was ruptured in the derailment, and the gas only slowly leaked out over several hours, allowing evacuation. But some day our luck will run out. There will be a massive leak in a densely populated area. When it happens people will say, as they did after the drowning of New Orleans, "It was so obvious. That was a disaster waiting to happen."

An accident in the Baltimore Tunnel in 2001 shut down major highways into the city, disrupted local telephone service, slowed parts of the Internet backbone, and the flooding from a water main break collapsed streets and knocked out power to 1,200 customers. Camden Yards had to be evacuated. Some day caskets of spent nuclear fuel, on the way to long-term storage sites, will regularly travel through this tunnel and many populated areas on the way. Had those caskets been in the Baltimore Tunnel fire they would have been exposed to temperatures far higher than their safety standards call for and for 24 hours. Current standards set a 30 minute limit at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit. The official estimates are that the Baltimore Tunnel fire burned for more then 24 hours at 1,500 degrees.

The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 is the bulwark the industry uses to protect itself from lawsuits based on negligence or even from violations of that Act. It holds that federal standards, which are low, preempt higher states standards. It also makes railroads immune from legal action. When a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed in January 2002 near Minot, ND, it spewed anhydrous ammonia from tank cars causing one death and extensive personal injuries and property damage, but the U.S. District Court reluctantly sided with the railroad and found that the perverse Safety Act prevented any recovery of damages.

Grade crossing accidents due to railroad negligence are notorious; last year The New York Times ran a slashing series on this issue, and it is being addressed in new legislation proposals. But even these pale compared to the dangers we run with huge concentrations of toxic and explosive materials in substandard tank cars, running on poorly maintained tracks with ancient switching equipment through dense populations. The new legislation should limit the amounts of hazmats in individual rail cars and the train as a whole, the routes they take, tank car standards, independent inspection of tracks, switches and rail cars, and increased penalties for violations, and making the railroads liable for the damages they cause. Congress needs to be proactive here. Rather than hold hearings on "lessons learned," why not try to avoid the devastation to begin with?