Unattended hazards

Homeland security officials want better status and tracking information about hazardous rail freight

Proposed rulemaking for Rail Transportation Security [.pdf]

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Most of the government’s attention to freight security in the past few years has been aimed at the country’s ports and the cargo that passes through them. Officials have paid less attention to the hazardous freight that travels on rail lines within the country, often through cities and other densely populated areas.

More than 5 percent of that freight — hundreds of carloads a day — is classified as hazardous. Most of that hazardous freight contains highly poisonous chemicals and materials known as toxic inhalation hazards. The rest consists of explosives and radioactive materials.

The government requires the rail industry to carry such loads under common carrier regulations, and it works hard to improve the safety of such freight. Rail hazmat accident rates are down about 90 percent since 1980. But in the post-2001 terrorist attack world, reducing unintentional mishaps is not enough.

A toxic emission from an attack against a chemical facility or hazardous chemicals in transit is one of the most serious risks facing the United States’ highest-threat areas, Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Homeland Security Department, said recently.

DHS learned from recent studies of high-threat urban areas that a potential risk that terrorists most likely would exploit is a railcar with toxic inhalation hazards left sitting unattended in unsecured locations.

If authorities knew where freight cars were at any given time, they could assess risks during elevated threat situations and enact an emergency response.

Plugging that hole in rail security is the purpose behind a new rule that DHS and the Transportation Security Administration proposed in December. It would require rail carriers to give DHS the location of any hazardous freight cars — along with tracking and routing information — within an hour after it requests the information.

Government officials expect that most companies will be able to comply with the one-hour rule using the information technology systems they have in place. The rule doesn’t require the use of specific technologies or protocols to deliver the information. But the DHS rule asks shippers to report information on all hazardous freight under their control within 30 minutes of a request from DHS and within 5 minutes of a request for information on a particular freight car.

Those notification deadlines are probably easier said than done, industry officials say. The rail industry has extensive tracking capabilities that notify them of their  trains’ location, but parts of the DHS/TSA rule push the limits, they say.

“We have no concern about providing that information within an hour” of a request, said Nancy Wilson, vice president of security at the Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing major freight railroads. “But providing it inside of 30 minutes could prove difficult,” she said.

Rail company officials need time to query their databases for location data, collate it, and fax or e-mail it to the government, Wilson said. The amount of time companies need to answer a request depends on the specificity of the request. Finding all railcars that pose toxic inhalation risks and notifying the government with 30 minutes might be feasible, for example, and even finding one particular car within five minutes might be possible, Wilson said. But locating a larger number of specific cars within five minutes is impossible with the type of tracking technology that most companies have deployed, she said.

If DHS and TSA insist on the five-minute requirement, she said, the only recourse for rail tank owners would be to attach a Global Positioning System device with integrated wireless capabilities to each hazardous tank and send the tracking data directly to TSA.

TSA officials estimate that the cost for developing one-hour notification capability with tracking technology is about $163.3 million for 10 years. The cost would certainly
be higher if a technology, such as GPS, were required.

First steps taken
The rail industry has built an extensive sensor and communications network in recent years to track rolling stock and ensure efficient operations. The use of radio frequency identification-based automatic identification equipment (AEI) systems, for example, has been mandatory since 1992 as part of the Association of American Railroads’ self-adopted standards and best practices. Two passive AEI tags are fixed to either side of a freight car and trackside readers collect the information
from each tag as they pass.

That level of data tracking, combined with some manual processing, most likely would be sufficient to meet the government’s proposed one-hour reporting requirement. But because RFID readers are at fixed locations, they would not be sufficient for quickly pinpointing and relaying exact location information about hazardous freight cars.

Industry has considered a widescale deployment of positive train control (PTC) systems to manage hazardous railcar risks. PTC systems use a combination of onboard computers, location devices such as GPS and digital wireless communication links that continually update operators about a train’s location and the condition of its crew. Someone could remotely stop a train equipped with a PTC system if its crew were incapacitated.

DHS and TSA officials said they believe GPS most likely will play a large part in the eventual solutions the rail carriers and tank car owners create to comply with the ne  rule, and they requested comments on GPS’ feasibility and possible application for hazardous railcar tracking.

A new role for GPS
TSA is also seeking information from industry about the security benefits of equipping railcars with chemical and open-hatch detection sensors tied into location-aware and messaging systems. Operators and TSA could be notified immediately in the event of accidental leaks or
unauthorized access to hazardous tank cars. Such RFID-based sensors could be part of a tampering and accident detection system, experts say.

The Dow Chemical Company uses RFID-sensor technology in its chlorine rail tank car fleet. The company wants to use it in its entire fleet of cars that transport toxic inhalation hazards. Dow is also working with Union Pacific and the Union Tank Car Company to design a nextgeneration tank car.

“Dow has been utilizing sensor technology for more than a decade and understands that these technologies will improve the way the industry does business,” said Adam
Muellerweiss, senior leader for public safety and security at Dow Chemical. “RFID, among other sensor technologies, is going to play an integral role in the full implementation of the next-generation rail tank car.”

Meanwhile, vendors are already developing products that use railcarbased GPS. For example, MHF Logistical Solutions recently introduced GPS Fleet Watch software that integrates location data produced by equipment on railcars with information such as weather conditions, maps of nationwide rail traffic and information on local communities the cars will pass through. It also contains tools that enable operators to communicate directly with emergency responders.

A lack of technology is not a barrier to solving the problem of hazardous railcars, experts say.

“More technology will always be needed because threats and the kinds of cargo will also always be changing,” said Don Rondeau, a former director of the TSA/DHS joint terrorism program who is now senior director and homeland security lead at Alion Science and Technology. “But much of what the feds are looking for already exists in the private sector,” he added.

However, industry has concerns that sharing information with the government for a hazardous railcar tracking system will expose companies to litigation and other problems, Rondeau said. Industry officials wonder if the government is being proactive enough on this issue.

He added the onus will be on the federal government “to create an environment that is sufficiently pro-business, so they can leverage the information that industry already has.”
Congressional leaders promise new pushSome members of the new Democratic-controlled Congress say they are unimpressed with the Bush administration’s proposed new regulation for rail freight.

“This administration was already required by Congress to take comprehensive steps to secure our nation’s surface transportation systems nearly two years ago, and they failed to do so,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson said he was unconvinced that a proposed rule for tracking railcars carrying hazardous materials would close all security gaps.

Both houses of Congress are expected to tackle the issue of rail security in coming months. Thompson said his panel will propose legislation to improve federal standards and oversight of passenger and freight railroads, particularly those that transport hazardous materials.

The new Senate has already offered two bills to provide rail security, the Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act of 2007 and the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. Both bills use provisions that were originally part of the SAFE Port Act but were dropped before that bill passed last year.

— Brian Robinson
Industry official calls for risk assessmentSome industry officials worry that the government could spend time and money on tracking hazardous rail freight and still get the wrong information.

“Absent a well-developed method to understand the risks involved, there’s a danger that everyone could be well-intentioned enough but go down the wrong path,” said Don Rondeau, senior director and homeland security lead at Alion Science and Technology.

The Homeland Security Department has proposed a rule to track hazardous rail freight on a real-time basis, but that capability could be useless without a real-time method of assessing the risk involved with that freight, Rondeau said.

“Any effort to deploy a remedy without understanding the risks is out of sequence,” he said.

— Brian Robinson

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