WASHINGTON - Tankers filled with deadly chemicals are likely to continue to roll through Baltimore and other major cities despite new federal rules initially aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic accidents or terrorist threats by sending much of the cargo through less-populated areas.
Beginning next month, railroads must analyze alternative routes for shipping chlorine and other hazardous materials, and pick the path they find to be the safest and most secure, as well as practical and "commercially viable."
But meaningful security improvements are unlikely, say safety experts and local officials. The analysis will be performed by the railroads themselves, using a model they are developing in agreement with the Bush administration and endorsed by Congress. There will be virtually no outside review, and limited input from state and local leaders or emergency responders. And any decisions on rerouting will be left to the railroads.
Railroads have already opposed mandatory rerouting of chemical tankers around Baltimore and other places. Critics note that rail companies will be reluctant to hand their cargo to a competitor with a nearby track in order to keep chemicals out of cities.
"It would be very difficult to say that we're safer" because of the new rules, said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who voted for the security package.
"It's very easy to criticize this and say it's not enough," Cummings said. "This is going to be a process, and may take a number of years. Is it a giant step? No. But it's a medium-sized step."
Federal transportation and railroad officials say it makes sense for the railroads to do the route analysis, since they are most knowledgeable about those issues. Track selection is just one component of hazardous material safety, they say.
"I call the critics nonsensical if they think this isn't a strong step," Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H. Boardman told reporters recently.
About 1.8 million carloads of hazardous material move along the nation's rails each year, according to the American Association of Railroads. Of that, 100,000 loads are especially dangerous gases or liquids known as "toxic inhalation hazards," most commonly chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. The chemicals are in effect the same type of poison gas used on the front line during World War I, and are now used to treat wastewater and produce fertilizer.
The new requirements are rooted in efforts by Baltimore, Washington and other cities to ban railroads from hauling toxic substances through heavily populated areas. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revived scrutiny of such transportation-related vulnerabilities.
A cloud of chlorine released deliberately or by accident could kill tens of thousands, depending on its location and the number of people in its path, government and military studies show.
In Baltimore, much of the cargo passes on tracks owned by CSX Transportation, which would not disclose the number and type of shipments.
But Baltimore has first-hand experience with the dangers. In July 2001, just months before Sept. 11, a derailment in the 1.7-mile-long CSX-owned Howard Street tunnel sparked a conflagration of dangerous chemicals that shut down the city center.
Rail lines pass within feet of the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play. Because of the danger, shipments were suspended last year when President Bush attended the Army-Navy football game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I just happen to think that certain hazardous materials should not come through a major city," said former Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N.Harris Sr., who sponsored a local rerouting proposal that was never adopted.
CSX and the railroad association said they would not comment on the potential for rerouting until the analyses were completed.
Encouraged by the rail industry, which feared a nationwide patchwork of such local rules, the federal government moved to create a framework of protections from hazardous chemical shipments. The rules were contained in a homeland security package approved by Congress last year, implementing many recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
But the authority given to rail industry groups by the Bush administration - and a complicit Congress - has weakened the effort, critics charge.
Selecting the safest path for chemicals "is a major public-policy decision affecting the health and safety of millions of people," said Fred Millar, a longtime chemical transportation consultant for Friends of the Earth, major cities and unions. "In this case, you are letting just the railroad make decisions, with no other body being involved, and in total secrecy."
"This is an extraordinary case where the Bush administration feels arrogant enough that they can hand this over to the railroads," Millar said. "There is no way that anybody can have any accountability here about the decisions that are being made. The assumptions and the data and the conclusions are all going to be locked up - held as sensitive security information."
The railroad route rules appear to continue the business-friendly bent of the Bush administration, said Rick Melberth, director of federal regulatory policy at OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that advocates for government openness.
"Their ideological approach has been 'We are going to protect economic interests first and foremost,' and public safety is second," Melberth said. The railroad regulations, he said, appear to be "another example of that tilt going too far."
Railroads "hate" the idea of mandatory rerouting and "will fight it with everything they've got," Cummings said, because it involves government intruding on business decisions and could cost companies money as they transfer cars to a competitor or embark on long detours.
Critics are misinterpreting what the rules are intended to do, said Steve Kolm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
"It is not about requiring railroads to reroute hazmat trains away from major cities, although rerouting may be one result," he said. "After all, it may very well be that the safest and most secure route is the one that goes through a major city."
In Baltimore, an old industrial port city where neighborhoods sprouted along rail lines, many residents see the dangers first-hand.
Bryan Peterson's South Baltimore home rattles when rail cars and their hazardous chemicals roll past in the middle of the night, coming and going from Locust Point factories and terminals.
He recently flagged down passing trains to prevent them from colliding with an 18-wheeler that got stuck on tracks near his Race Street home. Peterson has asked CSX to shift its cargo to a track farther away from residential neighborhoods.
But CSX has transferred the Swing Bridge track to the Trust for Public Lands and no longer controls it, company spokesman Bob Sullivan said.
"Everything is in line for a huge disaster," says Peterson. "The question we need to ask the railroads is, 'Why aren't you doing the right thing?'"
City officials have been following developments in Washington closely, and are pessimistic that the new rules will make residents like Peterson more secure.
"We appreciate the fact that DOT [Department of Transportation] recognizes the safety issue for cities. But people will have to understand that we remain a bit skeptical that this will lead to real change," said Christopher Thomaskutty, Baltimore's deputy mayor for administration.
With Baltimore experiencing a series of derailments in recent months, city and state officials reached an agreement this year with CSX to install a computer terminal at a state public safety center in Baltimore County, providing real-time access to hazardous material locations.
City officials say the location of the computer is not convenient, but Sullivan, the company spokesman, said CSX is unique in providing such information through a pilot program in Maryland and three other states - New York, New Jersey and Kentucky.
The model for analyzing and selecting routes is being developed by the Railroad Research Foundation, an affiliate of the American Association of Railroads. The regulations say the study must take into consideration 27 factors, including the length of the trip in distance and time; the type and maintenance level of the track; its grade and curves; and the "availability of practicable alternatives."
It will be up to the railroads to decide how much weight to give to each factor, which concerns some experts.
"Spreading the effort across so many factors is likely to prolong and weaken the analysis unnecessarily," said Theodore S. Glickman, a professor of decision sciences at George Washington University in a written response to the rules, calling the effort "unworkable and unlikely to result in adequate protection of target cities."
Railroads "are limited in their choices" of how they can transport cargo, notes Mark D. Abkowitz, a Vanderbilt University engineering professor and author of a recent book on responding to major accidents and incidents.
There are far fewer options than for trucks, which can readily avoid bridges, tunnels and city centers, he said.
"I don't think that the railroad industry ... is looking to sweep this under the rug," Abkowitz said, saying that industry officials "are going through a genuine effort to try to come up to a reasonable way of reconciling this question."