New Rule for Toxic Trains: Disaster Waiting to Happen

The Bush Administration’s new final chemical transportation security regulation (Fed Register 4 16 08) would allow US railroads to unilaterally select rail routes through or around major target cities for chemical railcars that the federal agencies consider “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Allowing trains carrying toxic chemicals through populated areas is a serious and avoidable risk. The President’s own former top homeland security official, Richard Falkenrath, in 2005 testified in Congress that this was the greatest vulnerability in the nation. President Bush’s new rule, however, leaves life-and-death routing decisions entirely in private railroad hands. Bush’s new rule allows railroads unilaterally to analyze and select hazmat routes using railroad assumptions and calculations that are to be kept secret from the public. They also allow virtually no role for state and local officials to influence route selections and would preempt any state or local re-routing legislation.

In recent years, Friends of the Earth has assisted eleven major U.S. cities, including Washington D.C., St. Louis, Buffalo and Chicago, and two states -- New York and Tennessee -- to introduce new hazmat rail and truck re-routing legislation. Friends of the Earth has also prompted many alarming major media reports on “Toxic Trains,” showing the easy accessibility to dangerous chemical railcars in cities and railyards.

Within the last year, a coal train derailed in the nation’s capital and dumped tons of its load into the Anacostia River that runs through the heart of Washington, DC; had that train been shipping toxic gas, the resulting horrors would probably still be leading our news casts.

Mainline routes through major U.S. cities annually carry more than 110,000 shipments of poison gas railcars. In many cases these shipments could be easily re-routed and are not, so railroads and chemical shippers are in effect recklessly pre-positioning these cargoes for potential derailment or terrorist attack.

The new rule utilizes railroad-friendly regulatory techniques to ensure that virtually no protective re-routing will occur:

  • It leaves individual railroads in charge of analyzing their own current routes and alternatives to these "over which they have authority to operate". The railroads are required only to "consider" interchange agreements with each other, often required for protective re-routing.
  • Individual railroads are allowed unilaterally to make the critical decision to "weight" the 27 new "factors" they must consider (in Appendix D) – DOT declines even to rank order the factors. But DHS did give a $5 million grant to develop a "routing tool" that could be voluntarily used by the railroads – the grant went to the railroads.
  • Railroads are told they should “work with” state and local officials, but the latter have no role in any of the important analyses or route selections.
  • The information on analyses and route selections must be "restricted" to those with "a need to know", and specifically not to be shared with the public.
  • The federal agencies will not approve route selections, nor set up any kind of new oversight, but leave it to the current, overburdened FRA inspectors who may look over these in the course of their normal inspections.
  • Even if a railroad identifies an alternative route as safer and more secure, it may continue to use the one through a large city by implementing some unspecified "remediation and mitigation" measures [p. 20762].
  • The Interim Final rule is not effective until June 1, 2008, and gives the railroads another full year (Sept 1, 2009) to implement route analyses and selections.

Read the Press Release: "Friends of the Earth Blasts Bush Admin Railroad Routing Regs"