Trains still carry lethal cargo through Dallas-Forth Worth, other American cities

Published 4 May 2010

A cloud of chlorine gas could kill up to 17,500 people and injure 100,000 others within several miles; about 1,300 chlorine-filled cars go through Union Pacific Railroad’s Davidson Yard in west Fort Worth in a typical year; the U.S. railroad industry, which is required by federal common-carrier law to ship chemicals such as chlorine, transported some 75,000 tank cars of toxic inhalants nationwide in 2009

Railroads continue to haul chlorine, ammonia, and other hazardous materials through major metropolitan areas such as Fort Worth and Dallas despite years of efforts to reduce shipments in populated areas where an accident or terrorist attack could kill thousands.

Gordon Dickson writes in the Star Telegram that in fact, one federal rule designed to prevent terrorism actually increases the potential of exposure in cities, critics say. The rule requires railroads to keep chlorine-filled rail cars in yards where employees are always on duty, if possible. Those places tend to be in populated areas rather than in rural areas where they may go unattended.

Information about the precise number of rail cars carrying toxic inhalants through Tarrant County, Texas — and which railroad tracks they use — is kept confidential under federal law. One Fort Worth emergency response official who has been briefed on historical railroad shipping trends told Dickson that about 1,300 chlorine-filled cars go through Union Pacific Railroad’s Davidson Yard in west Fort Worth in a typical year.

Although local officials are not told ahead of time when a train with chlorine cars is coming through town, they are trained to cooperate with railroads in the event of an emergency, said Keith Wells, Fort Worth senior emergency management officer. “We know where to call to get instant information about what’s there,” he said.

Critics say several changes in federal law since 2004, while perhaps meant to improve safety, may have actually increased the risk of a tragedy.

Emergency responders who would be responsible for evacuating or rescuing residents near a chlorine spill do not have access to enough information about shipping routes and are not properly prepared to deal with a disaster, said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based rail security consultant.

Instead, only the railroads themselves and a small number of credentialed federal officials are allowed to review the data, he said. “Are we going to let corporations puts the citizens at major risk? That’s what’s happening in your city,” said Millar, who argues that shipping routes should be publicized and scrutinized by watchdog groups to ensure the public welfare is protected.

Dickson notes that Millar fought for a ban on hazardous shipments in the District of Columbia that was approved several years ago, but it was overturned in court.

Although no incidents involving a rail shipment of chlorine, ammonia, or a similar toxic inhalant have occurred in North Texas recently, the consequences of