New U.S. railroad shipping regulations to take effect next month

Experts say new rules unlikely to reduce risk of accidents, terrorist attacks

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.