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When two Norfolk Southern freight trains collided in Graniteville, S.C., during the early morning hours of Jan. 6, local residents had good reason to worry: The collision derailed more than a dozen rail cars and spewed toxic chlorine gas into the atmosphere. The National Transportation Safety Board-best known for piecing together aviation disasters-immediately dispatched a team to investigate the wreck, which left nine people dead, sent hundreds more to the hospital and forced more than 5,000 people from their homes. While the disaster apparently was caused by a misaligned track switch and not terrorists, the collision raises serious questions about the state of railroad security and the relative lack of attention it has received since Sept. 11, 2001. Domestic security officials already regard trains as potential targets of choice for terrorists. In late 2002, the FBI publicly warned that al-Queda showed possible interest in attacking passenger or freight trains, including those with hazardous materials onboard. The deadly train bombings in Madrid, Spain, 18 months later, validated those concerns. Shortly thereafter, some trains hauling hazardous cargo were rerouted away from Washington. Some of the trains, which transported chlorine, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, had been passing within blocks of the U.S. Capitol. Fears that terrorists might try to turn the railcars into weapons prompted the move. In an October 2004 letter to then- Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, three members of Congress pressed those concerns: “[E]nough chlorine to kill or injure 100,000 people in half an hour is often contained in a single rail tanker car going right through crowded urban centers-including Washington, D.C.” Local D.C. lawmakers recently passed a measure that implements a 90-day ban on the transport of certain hazardous materials near the Capitol, though this may raise constitutional issues regarding interstate commerce. However, for the countless communities that literally grew up around the tracks, rerouting trains to mitigate the danger of an attack is not an option. Although the private sector and the government have improved security since Sept. 11, the Government Accountability Office reported that “securing passenger and freight rail systems are fraught with challenges.” This is a fractal task: Railroads and the structures that support them encompass more than 100,000 miles of track, countless bridges, tunnels, rail yards and stations, the majority of which cannot be walled off, effectively screened or otherwise protected using traditional security techniques. Also, railroads are part of a larger network of critical infrastructures that depend on and intersect with truck, ship and aviation transport. Security thus must be understood broadly and implemented cooperatively, and across the nation. Finally, multiple stakeholders and regulators blur the lines of responsibility: The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have a say in safeguarding trains and their contents-but so do other agencies. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 and the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 have become law, but Congress has not passed comparable security legislation for our rail system. But the Rail Security Act of 2004, S.2273, may change that. After passing the Senate, the bill is awaiting action by the House. If it were to become law, this act would require DHS to conduct vulnerability assessments of freight and passenger rail and develop recommendations to reduce those vulnerabilities. It also would clarify the roles and responsibilities of DOT and DHS, and establish a program to spur new technologies to safeguard both passengers and cargo. The bill also addresses concerns over tank cars, systematically protecting hazardous materials in transit from acts of terrorism. Information sharing is vital Legislation is not a magic bullet: It must be narrowly tailored yet able to evolve over time and apply in a multitude of situations. Even more, law is no substitute for information sharing, the lifeblood of homeland security. Toward this end, the formation of the Surface Transportation Information Sharing and Analysis Center in 2002 to gather, interpret and disseminate homeland security-related information is a move in the right direction. Networks such as these are being established through DHS for every major critical infrastructure sector. It is here that the tens of thousands of rail employees form the front line of rail security and do what legislation and computer-generated threat reports cannot. Those in the field are best positioned to recognize who does not belong and what looks out of place. Safeguarding the nation’s vast rail infrastructure from terrorism requires a multifaceted approach. The time has come to get rail security on the right track and provide the attention and resources that have been thrust upon planes and airports-or the next tragedy in South Carolina or 49 other states may be no accident. Steven E. Roberts, an NLJ columnist, is a homeland security consultant.

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