Trains, tunnels and toxics

October 31, 2005

Just as Hippocrates advised doctors to "first, do no harm," politicians ought to abide by a similar creed. Take the Baltimore City Council, for instance. Members of the council are pondering a bill that would require CSX Transportation to reroute its most dangerous hazardous materials shipments away from the Howard Street Tunnel. That sounds great. After all, who wants a derailed 90-ton tanker car of chlorine spewing a poisonous cloud of gas from such an inaccessible spot in the middle of a city?

But rerouting trains could prove risky, too. Freight industry officials say it would mean longer trips on less-suitable rail lines with more "dwell time" in rail yards. All raise the danger of both accidents and attack. And while there's only vague evidence U.S. freight lines might be targeted for terrorist attack, accidents are a very real threat. As recently as January, nine people were killed and 250 others injured by a leaking chlorine tanker in Graniteville, S.C.

Yet the numbers might be far worse if hazardous materials producers stopped shipping by rail altogether. Experts say moving these substances over highways represents an even greater threat.

The Baltimore ban is on uncertain legal footing. It was modeled after a District of Columbia law that was rejected by a federal appeals court as unconstitutional. Federal authorities claim primary oversight on interstate commerce. And it's not hard to see a potential for chaos in letting the nation's freight rail policy be set city by city. Unlike D.C., Baltimore is home to actual companies that manufacture, ship or receive hazardous materials.

Clearly, a solution will take more than a city ordinance. First responders need access to information about what's shipped through their communities. More extensive hazmat training is also required. Improved tanker cars and technology to monitor their contents could also be mandated. Vulnerable rail lines ought to be upgraded or replaced. But money is tight. Washington has authorized just $350 million a year to relocate rail lines, a pittance, given the nation's 100,000 miles of rail. And no one seems willing to force the needed changes on the handful of major railroads.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., sponsor of the rerouting bill, deserves credit for raising an important issue. Last week's closing of the harbor tunnels underscored the reality of this homeland security threat. So have the terrorist attacks on passenger rail lines in Madrid and London. Now, it's up to the Bush administration and Congress to respond to this clear warning.

The nation needs a viable, long-term plan to keep its cities safe from the potential disaster posed by an ultra-hazardous materials incident. Small wonder cities like Baltimore want to take action on their own, even when it's not appropriate. No one else seems willing to blow the whistle.

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