Toxics on the Rails: The Best Route Is Training

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A90-ton rail car of chlorine passing within blocks of the Capitol, if its cargo were released, could kill or injure about 100 people per second. It would be lethal within two to five miles and dangerous for 14 miles.

These facts frame a debate about whether to reroute rail cars carrying hazardous materials away from the District of Columbia, as explored recently in The Post.

But there is a cheaper and more immediate way to enhance public safety, whether or not trains are ever rerouted. We need to develop quality training for preventing and handling accidents -- and acts of terrorism -- and then invest in such training for railroad personnel, emergency responders and community residents. At the moment, training by the railroads is woefully inadequate.

Improvements in railroad safety are critical to regional and national security and to the health and well-being of Americans. One million tons of hazardous materials, including chemicals and nuclear waste, roll along railways every day through cities and towns across the United States, unprotected by adequate emergency procedures or personnel trained in how to manage a toxic-materials crisis.

Millions of lives and billions of dollars are at stake.

Training can mean the difference between life and death.

In Graniteville, S.C., in 2005, one of three rail cars, each carrying 90 tons of deadly chlorine, was breached after a derailment. More than 60 tons of chlorine vaporized into a toxic cloud. The engineer, a young man in good health, ran through the cloud for safety, but, because he was breathing deeply, he was overcome. The conductor, who had military training in responding to poison gas, walked slowly through the cloud using shallow breathing and was able to escape with his life. A former chemistry teacher recognized chlorine gas emanating from the crash site and warned residents to stay indoors and turn off their ventilation systems.

At the National Labor College in Silver Spring, we have trained more than 20,000 railway workers and first responders from across North America. We teach simulated-response drills to hazardous materials release. Our experience suggests that the public safety would be best served by:

· Training all local rail workers -- freight, Amtrak, VRE and MARC personnel alike.

· Training emergency responders in rail hazardous materials awareness, including joint exercises with rail workers.

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