Hell on Wheels

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

What if I told you that:

· On average, six rail cars a week carrying 90 tons of chlorine, one of the most lethal gases in the world, pass within 20 blocks of the U.S. Capitol?

· If terrorists attacked the rail cars, escaping gas could kill or injure tens of thousands -- about 100 people a second?

· Depending on the wind, a chlorine spill would be lethal to people within two to five miles and would endanger people within 14 miles?

· The chlorine passing through Washington is not for use here?

· The rail cars basically are unprotected and are emblazoned with placards announcing that they carry hazardous cargo -- including the specific code for chlorine?

It doesn't have to be this way. CSX Transportation (CSXT) could reroute these cars. So why doesn't it?

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) have asked that very question.

Biden and Markey have introduced bills requiring the railroads to reroute the most hazardous materials away from vulnerable cities. A bill that Patterson authored about a year ago (and that was signed by Mayor Williams) demands that rail companies reroute hazardous materials away from Washington.

CSXT's response to Patterson's bill was to sue the District, with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation filing statements in its support. Patterson says the case might go to trial this fall. Meanwhile, rail cars carrying chlorine gas roll through Washington.

Jay Boris of the Naval Research Laboratory said his worst-case scenario would have been an accident along the rail line that runs four blocks from the Capitol. If a big event were taking place on the Mall when such an accident occurred, he said, 100,000 out of 500,000 people might be killed. If an attack were to happen at rush hour, he estimated, the death toll could be 17,000.

But the railroad says that won't happen because it has discontinued shipping chlorine on that route.

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