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Danger On The Rails

S.C. disaster shows need for more attention to safety

Jan 13, 2005 | Charlotte Observer

Less than a week after a massive train derailment in Graniteville, S.C., spewed toxic fumes killing nine and forcing thousands from their homes, federal officials told railroads to do more to ensure the safety of rail lines and communities around them. The move can't help the S.C. residents still sick, homeless and grieving from the disaster. But it is a welcome first step in addressing an issue that has gotten too little attention the dangers of transporting hazardous materials by rail.

The Graniteville crash occurred when an apparently misaligned manual switch diverted a Norfolk Southern train from the main track. The train slammed into parked railcars and spewed a cloud of toxic chlorine in what is believed to be the nation's worst chemical leak from a wrecked train in 27 years.

This newspaper's review of federal records showed misaligned switches are among the most common causes of train wrecks, and the federal safety advisory keyed in on just that problem. Tuesday's advisory from the Federal Railroad Administration urges officials to make sure manual switches on rail lines are properly set, requiring crews to orally report they've reset switches and to log their action on a form.

These changes could help prevent another tragedy. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Graniteville crash, is also considering whether automatic signals or dispatcher-controlled switches are needed on the Graniteville rail line. Most trains in the United States operate on tracks with electronic signals, which tell crews the position of a switch and warn of problems. But 40 percent of the tracks in the country the Graniteville tracks among them do not have such signals or automated switches. They are needed, especially where hazardous materials are transported.

Train wrecks are infrequent and dangerous chemical spills even more so, officials note. Still, in the last 20 years, more than 600 rail cars carrying hazardous materials through South Carolina have been involved in train wrecks, and 26 of those cars leaked their contents.

However infrequent, the crash of a train carrying hazardous materials can have catastrophic consequences, as this one did in Graniteville. Every feasible safety precaution must be taken.

And when disaster strikes, companies should not take actions that add to the hardship of those affected. Norfolk Southern blundered last week in distributing expense checks that said endorsing them "constitutes full, final and complete release of all claims" from the accident. Residents feared the company was trying to escape litigation and was taking advantage of families in their time of need. Norfolk Southern, which commendably stepped in quickly to pay for lodging, food and the like, has rightly disavowed the odious statement and reissued checks without that language.

The threat of terrorist strikes should ratchet up concern about better safeguards and procedures on rail transport of hazardous materials. The Graniteville crash shows the horrific results when it's just an accident. Imagine how bad it might have been if terrorists were involved. This issue deserves focused attention and action.

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