In case of emergency

November 29, 2007

With the Army-Navy game scheduled for Saturday and last weekend's train derailment near M&T Bank Stadium still fresh in everyone's minds, city officials are understandably worried about the potential for a hazardous-materials disaster in downtown Baltimore. At some level, this is entirely appropriate - the mixture of one spilled tanker car carrying some harmful volatile chemical and 70,000 football fans is not a pleasant prospect - but this ought to be considered from a proper perspective.

As unsettling as the 2001 freight train derailment and fire in the nearby Howard Street Tunnel were, such episodes are rare. Last Saturday's derailment caused no release of toxic materials. No leaks from the overturned chemical cars. No evacuations.

Freight trains are by far the safest way to carry toxic materials. The alternative is usually to load them into trucks and send them off to congested highways. It doesn't take a scientist to understand the danger there - our nation's roads are far more prone to accidents than our rail lines.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and others have tossed around a number of suggestions that might improve matters. They include rerouting hazardous materials, restricting rail traffic near the stadium during major events and keeping city emergency workers better informed about freight cargo.

Ordering CSX to reroute hazardous materials is a nonstarter. Setting aside that it may increase risk (as rail traffic near M&T follows what is essentially CSX's equivalent of Interstate 95, its highest-grade north-south thoroughfare), the city doesn't have the authority. The District of Columbia's attempt to ban such hazmat shipments is tied up in federal court.

Even restricting hazmat movement is problematic. Much of what is loaded into trains is time-sensitive, and truly hazardous materials constitute a tiny fraction of rail freight. According to CSX, about 90 percent of the hazmat traveling the route is either bound from or headed for the Baltimore area. When the Howard Street Tunnel was temporarily closed six years ago, it wasn't long before local industry felt the impact.

But giving police and fire officials an easy and secure system for accessing real-time information about the contents of freight trains is an entirely reasonable proposition, and it's something CSX ought to be able to do as soon as possible.

Even the safest of freight lines can be made safer - but usually at a cost. Replacing the Howard Street Tunnel, for instance, could run into billions of dollars. That's money that would probably be better spent on more urgent needs.

Providing more and easier access to information in the event of emergencies, however, is a prudent and cost-effective strategy. As outgoing Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. recently noted, "It's a simple thing CSX could do ... and look heroic."

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