PLATTSBURGH — A lack of transparency about the materials riding the rails through North Country neighborhoods is a concern for Essex County Emergency Services Battalion Coordinator Dan Benoit.
He acknowledges that local departments are offered training in handling Amtrak and freight-train accidents. But he said more could be done by Canadian Pacific Railroad Ltd. to quickly provide emergency responders with important shipment information.
“They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk as good as they could,” he said.
Specifically, Benoit said he believes national-security regulations prevent local first-responders from gathering information about the contents of freight trains that could be involved in derailment accidents.
“With terrorism, they’re very hesitant to tell you what’s coming through here today or next week,” he said.
A conductor must be contacted or a rail manifest obtained to learn what materials are being transported along North Country railroads on any given day, he said.
Benoit pointed to proposed reform in Canada that he had read about as an alternative to the current system. The plan would station railroad representatives throughout different regions who would be able to quickly get approval to pass along information about freight-train contents in the event of an emergency.
Canadian Pacific representative Ed Greenberg said the company would not comment on speculation about a proposal, but he explained that although real-time shipping information could not be provided, the company is willing to work with local emergency officials to educate them on the types of materials that could pass along the company’s railroads.
“We regularly update and work with local communities across our network on questions of what we move and if there’s any training we can help with,” he said.
“We want to ensure that we’re in step with local first-responders and work with them as part of any preparedness or training that’s required.”
Along with faster communication of shipment information, another topic of concern in the recent debates surrounding rail safety is the design of the containers used to transport dangerous materials.
Congressmen Bill Owens (Plattsburgh-D) and Kevin Cramer (ND-at large) recently issued a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration calling for safety reforms to be made based on new rail-accident reports.
“Recent accidents in the United States and Canada are warning signs that the nation’s railroads currently lack adequate protections for Americans living near railroads where trains carry hazardous materials,” Owens said in a news release.
Along with calling for the re-examination of existing safety guidelines and increased numbers of inspections, he and Cramer specifically mentioned the security risks involved with the continued use of DOT-111 model tanker cars.
A 2012 National Transportation Safety Board report states that 69 percent of tank cars in use in the United States were DOT-111 models. The same report said there was a “high incidence of tank failure” for DOT-111 tankers and that the model was “not effective in preventing impact damage.”
Canadian-Pacific is not involved directly in the design and selection of the rail cars that shippers move along its railroads, but as a member of the American Association of Railroads, the company advocates for additional safety features to be installed on them.
Each rail car that passes along Canadian-Pacific lines is required to meet both federal and company safety standards, Greenberg said.
One company safety measure his company has pushed for is for shippers to properly label the contents of every shipment traveling on its lines.
Benoit said he appreciates the information provided by safety labels but that they wouldn’t be as much help if a dangerous chemical were to prevent emergency officials from getting close enough to read them.
“You don’t want to be in there breathing toxic fumes trying to find out what the number is on there,” he said.
CSX Corp. owns the rail system that travels through Franklin County, and representative Bob Sullivan said in a statement that the company has worked to maintain the safety standards required by federal law and has invested in employee training and technology purchases aimed at preventing railroad accidents.
In 2012, CSX had spent $111 million on railroad maintenance in New York, the statement said.
“The line connecting Syracuse, the Montreal area and communities in between is also inspected visually at least once a week and is inspected at least annually by sophisticated equipment that can check the condition and the stability of the rail and track structure,” the statement said.
TRAIN SAFETY SERIES
This is the second of two articles examining railroad safety in the North Country.