A safer track?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on February 18, 2007.

Anna Garcia was drifting off to sleep when she heard the train.

It began with the usual noises, noises she was used to: Living just a couple dozen yards from the railroad tracks, Garcia often fell asleep to the sound of chugging locomotives and rumbling wheels.

Then the noises changed.

"It got louder and started screeching and squealing and grinding," Garcia said last week in a telephone conversation. "It shook my windows. I went to my son's room and looked out the window and then I saw it explode. I could feel the heat on my face through the window."

The 80-car freight train had come off the track, sending 12 cars filled with hazardous chemicals into front yards in this residential neighborhood in Bullitt County, Ky., about half an hour south of Louisville.

Weeks later, cleanup crews are still working at the scene of the Jan. 16 crash, the largest experienced by Jacksonville-based CSX Corp. since a massive accident in Baltimore in 2001. Fifteen Kentucky families are still out of their homes, although no one was seriously injured in the wreck.

Speed bump on road to improvement

This year has started badly for CSX: Of the four major accidents being investigated by the Federal Railroad Administration's main office so far this year, three of them involved the company's trains.

The crash that led to Anna and Mike Garcia and their 3-year-old son still needing to stay in a hotel followed an accident in Central Kentucky the day before in which four cars slipped onto the mainline, running for miles before hitting locomotives that the company had put out to stop them. That crash released some 30,000 gallons of flammable butyl acetate, causing the Kentucky River to catch fire and requiring evacuation of the area.

The Kentucky accidents came on the heels of an incident on Jan. 4 in which a CSX car carrying 28,000 gallons of methanol caught fire in the rail yard in Selkirk, N.Y., and were followed by a crash in West Virginia on Feb. 6 in which 18 cars, 10 of which were carrying hazardous chemicals, derailed in West Virginia, although none of the chemicals spilled.

The slew of accidents is actually an anomaly for CSX, at least in recent years. The third-largest railroad in the country and the largest in the Eastern United States, CSX has seen a strong, steady decline in the total number of accidents and incidents, a category that includes pretty much any problem involving a train, whether it's in a trainyard or running the tracks.

Since a peak of railroad problems in the late 1990s, the four major U.S. railroads have seen improvement in recent years, with CSX seeing the biggest drop in accidents and incidents since 2003.

The decrease, said Jim Marks, CSX's vice president of safety, stems from a confluence of factors: Millions of dollars invested in improving infrastructure, the deployment of cutting-edge technology, an increased focus on training among its workforce.

"We're improving our human factor at the fastest rate of any Class I railroad," Marks said.

Still, as an industry, railroads have room for improvement, according to a range of federal agencies and outside experts.

"They have improved over the years but they have a long way to go," said Larry Mann, principal draftsman of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 and now an attorney representing railroad workers. "The problem endemic in the industry is federal oversight is very poor."

In a report issued last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said it was unclear how effective Federal Railroad Administration programs are in making trains safer, but contrasted the 400 field inspectors the agency has with the 219,000 miles of track in operation.

Hazmat accidents drop

As well as seeing the number of all crashes decrease, CSX has also cut the number of accidents it experiences involving hazardous materials, such as the butadiene, cyclohexane and maleic anhydride - flammable materials that can also cause inhalation problems - carried by the train that derailed in Kentucky. CSX had 107 hazmat accidents in 2006, compared to 39 for industry leader Norfolk Southern Co. and 243 for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the company trailing the pack.

Nevertheless, the accidents that started off CSX's year all involved hazardous material trains, leading politicians and experts to ponder the possible catastrophe that could arise if a hazmat train crashed in a heavily populated area. It also points to security concerns revolving around what could be seen as giant chemical bombs mounted on wheels.

"The railroads take it seriously, but it's an inherently dangerous activity," said Theodore Glickman, a George Washington University business professor who has worked as a consultant for the Association of American Railroads and the Department of Transportation. "The problem here is when something does go wrong, it can have enormous impact. These chemicals are so dangerous and they're in such large quantities."

CSX is aware of the danger of those loads, company officials say, and take precautions to make sure crashes don't happen. Trains carrying larger amounts of hazardous materials are specially marked in the company's tracking system, and crews and other workers are alerted to the material's presence.

"99.999 percent of all hazardous materials entrusted to us move safely," said Skip Elliott, the company's vice president of public safety and environment. "Without a doubt, the railroad is the safest way to transport hazardous materials."

Over the past decade, 5.5 percent of the nation's hazmat accidents have involved trains, according to the Department of Transportation; the bulk of the accidents - 86.4 percent - occurred on highways. More people were injured in each in each individual railroad accident, though, with a total of 1,509 people injured in highway-related hazmat accidents over the decade, and 1,087 injured in a rail accident.

The government does not keep track of the volume or frequency of hazardous material shipments by carrier, although CSX will, upon request, provide emergency responders with a list of the 25 chemicals most often transported through their communities.

Local, federal regulations

Still, governments - on both the federal and state level - are looking for more to be done.

CSX is now embroiled in a lawsuit with the District of Colombia, which is seeking to have all trains carrying hazardous materials routed around the city. Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has pledged to reintroduce legislation that would set higher minimum and maximum fines for fatal accidents and establish new requirements for investigations, inspections and the use of new safety technology.

At the same time, the Department of Transportation and Department of Homeland Security both have proposed rules on which they are seeking comment: The Transportation rule would require railroads to look at alternative routes for hazardous materials, while Homeland Security is seeking to change the way hazmat cars are stored and transferred. DHS would also formally give the Transportation Security Administration authority to inspect freight and passenger rail.

The Association of American Railroads said it is working with Homeland Security on those ideas, but stresses "keeping hazardous materials secure will continue to require active and close cooperation between all the players in the logistics chain," from the companies that own the tanker cars to the manufacturers and users of the chemicals.

For its part, CSX said clear and well-thought-out regulations will be a boon to the industry. "We're unequivocally not opposed to doing the right thing," Elliott said. "We're not opposed to anything that enhances security."

Accident's psychological costs

The hazmat spill along Huber Station Road in Bullitt County, Ky., could end up costing CSX $10 million to $20 million, Chief Executive Michael Ward said, with the money going to everything from cleaning up the spill to taking care of the people affected by the accident.

It's money well spent, said Angela Smith, who, like her neighbor, Anna Garcia, is still waiting to return home. "They've been great," Smith said about CSX. "They really have. We're just waiting and seeing what happens."

Still, the Kentucky resident said, she doesn't think she'll ever look at a train the same way again.

"I grew up around railroad tracks, and I never thought nothing like this would happen," she said. "Now, when the train is coming, I wait before going down Huber Station. The chances of it happening at the same spot are a billion-to-one - but there's just the chance it could happen."

As for Garcia, she said she has no interest in returning to the home that is now missing half its driveway.

"We like to entertain and have people over for dinner," she said, "and people will always wonder 'Did they get it all out of the ground?' I don't want to move back. I have a lot of fears."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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