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Railroads Defend Secrecy as Accidents Raise Concerns

Jad Mouawad
The New York Times
Published: 15 April 2014 10:36 PM
Updated: 15 April 2014 10:36 PM


File 2013/The Associated Press

Emergency workers examined the aftermath of a train derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July.

U.S. railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concerns about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.

Local and state officials complain that they receive little information about when hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes. Federal interstate commerce rules give them little say in the matter, and railroads are exempted from federal “right to know” regulations on hazardous material sites.

Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine.

This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 mph when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders.

The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. In July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the U.S. border, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.

Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of “iconic targets” like sports arenas along the way.

That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.

The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.

But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.

And railroads are also allowed to consider the economic effects of their routing choices and how it would affect their customer relationships, which gives them additional flexibility in their choice.

Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the results of the program’s analysis “are considered sensitive security information, and we are not able to share details.”

Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, said the system had not demonstrated that it reduced shipping hazards by avoiding populated areas.

“The federal government has produced not one line of public assessment on the effectiveness of the law in reducing risk,” he said.

Railroads are subject to periodic federal audits. But none has ever been fined over its choice of route since reviews started in 2009, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Some analysts cautioned that rerouting was not always possible or even desirable.

Brigham McCown, an administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Bush administration, said a railroad may decide that a shorter route through a city may have better tracks, and therefore be less risky, than a longer route with older tracks.

“Rerouting may be less effective than some believe,” he said. “The current concern is that the volume of hazmat is growing exponentially, and the question is whether the agencies have the adequate resources to actively monitor that.”

Railroad officials said they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities. But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to “bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning,” a constraint that precludes them from making the information public.

“We feel the information is getting to where it needs to get,” said Thomas Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the Association of American Railroads. “It should be on a need-to-know basis. Public availability of highly detailed information is problematic from a security perspective.”

Railroad officials say there is no need for tighter regulation. They argue that the industry has made big investments in recent years to upgrade tracks and that train safety has improved.

But critics say the federal government has been too slow to address the danger posed by these new shipments.

“There is an unwillingness to use any kind of enforcement power at the federal level,” said Mike O’Brien, a Seattle City Council member who sponsored a resolution seeking greater disclosures from the industry. “The railroads have a lot of protections through federal statutes. That’s the ongoing challenge we face as cities.”


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