Making Rail Freight Safe in The District

Managing the Tiny Risk of a Enormous Catastrophe

As DC lawmakers consider legislation to implement an inspection program for rail freight passing through the Nation's Capital, the question naturally arises: What has the local government historically done to protect communities and historic structures from a catastrophic train wreck or toxic spill?

The answer, unsettling as it may sound, is: Not much.

CSX Transportation, the company that owns, operates and maintains some 70 miles of track in the District, says it handles 375,000 carloads of freight per year, including cars, consumer goods, agriculture products and coal. The company has about 50 employees to oversee its operations.

Two passenger lines, owned-by CSX, one coming from the direction of Rockville, MD, the other from Baltimore, converge at Union Station, where they are routed through the First Street Tunnel, over the Long Railroad Bridge and into Virginia, according to a map provided by CSX. CSX's freight line branches off the latter near Hyattsville, where it then heads south, runs parallel to the Anacostia Freeway, crosses the Anacostia River near the Navy Yard, passes through a tunnel under the U.S. Capitol, and merges with the first line near L'Enfant Plaza before crossing the Long Bridge.

The CSX rail lines travel through Wards 5, 6 and 7, where, in 2007, a major derailment sent 600 tons of coal into the Anacostia River. The incident resulted from a failure to secure the brakes of an 89-car freight train that collapsed a bridge in Anacostia Park, according to news reports at the time. CSX eventually paid the District a $650,000 settlement to create a $500,000 environment endowment fund and resolve alleged safety violations and costs for emergency response and restoration of natural resources.

According to Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, there have been no other derailments in the District since 2007. However, documents obtained by this reporter also show a second derailment of 13 of 28 loaded cars on a train containing unspecified hazardous materials occurred in November 2009. A Federal Railroad Administration Incident Report states that 18 cars were carrying hazardous materials, however, the report states "N/A" in the space designated for "HAZMAT Cars Derailed."

An investigative report by the News 4 I-Team last week further highlighted safety risks of hazardous materials moving through the District. The report pointed to CSX derailments in Rosedale, MD, in 2013, and Lynchburg, VA, last April, both of which resulted in dangerous fires.

Though CSX officials told the I-Team that it stopped shipping chlorine, ammonia and other explosives through the District in 2004, reporters recently observed placards for molten sulfur, ammonium nitrate and molten phenol on its rail cars -- materials that call for a mile-wide evacuation zone that encompasses the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the Navy Yard, 10 Metro stations, Interstates 395 and 295, and federal buildings south of the National Mall.

CSX went to federal court in 2005 to challenge a District ban on shipping hazardous materials, and the court agreed that the law does not prohibit such shipments. When asked about its current protocols for ensuring safe passage of hazardous materials, the D.C. Department of Transportation said in an email last week: "The city has left [rail safety] inspections to the rail companies and federal agencies since ultimately the [federal government] has enforcement power. It’s not required by each state."  

DDOT referred further questions to the DC Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency and DC Fire and EMS. In an email, a spokesman for HSEMA said the agency coordinates with CSX and FEMS by providing "situational awareness" on hazardous materials, but that it has no regulatory oversight over the rail line itself. FEMS has authority over hazardous material incidents that occur in the District, the spokesman said, and trains CSX employees on emergency response procedures.

FEMS officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Doolittle stated the company works with DC agencies to ensure they have the information needed to protect the public's interests. The company evaluates 27 factors recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation to determine the safest routes for any given shipment, he said, noting "Rail transportation remains the safest means available for transporting hazardous materials, and safety is CSX’s highest priority," Doolittle said.

State Rail Safety Participation Program

So how do other states approach the issue of rail safety?

Authority for railroad safety inspections rests with the Federal Railroad Administration, under the jurisdiction of the USDOT, which requires FRA to conduct oversight of rail freight through unannounced inspections and audits and to take enforcement action as appropriate.

The FRA also works in conjunction with at least 30 states through the State Rail Safety Participation program, which allows state inspectors to receive training in the same disciplines as federal inspectors and to report findings to the FRA database.

DC is the only jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic region that does not already participate in the program. 

Inspectors with Virginia's Division of Utility and Railroad Safety investigate accidents and inspect railroad tracks, bridges, rail cars and locomotives to ensure compliance with FRA standards on major and short line railroads over thousands of miles of track, according to Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the State Corporation Commission.

The division has five employees who conduct inspections and one administrator who monitors more than 3,500 miles of track, Schrad said. In 2014, the division inspected more than 10,000 "track units," which include miles of track, freight records, grade crossings, locomotives, rail cars and power equipment, he said, noting that last year inspectors found more than 5,000 defects, cited 20 violations and investigated 22 accidents and 20 complaints. Inspectors also assess switchyards, field offices, yard offices and dispatching areas for compliance with FRA regulations. 

In Maryland, where the memory of the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire still haunts, three inspectors conduct roughly 650 inspections per year, according to Chief Railroad Inspector Charles Rogers. "If we find something broken on the locomotive, rail car or track, we notify the railroad and they fix it," he said, adding that measuring the program's effectiveness is an elusive task. "It's hard to prove a negative," he said. 

A philosophical attitude seems to come from experience -- something that DC lacks. One former Pennsylvania railroad safety inspector, who has since returned to the private sector, said that 2013 was the safest in rail history. (Figures for 2014 have not been released.) A more pressing concern, the former inspector said, is holding on to qualified people, as government salaries can be as low as $40,000 a year. "Government inspectors do what industry inspectors do," he said, "but you can make into six-figures if you're working for the railroad."

Rodney Bender, manager of the transportation division for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said salary disparity could be a challenge in DC, due to the cost of living. His state has more miles of railroad track than almost any other state except California, with eight inspectors trying to inspect 20,000 rail cars and 400 locomotives per year, over 1,500 miles of main line track and 50 miles of yard track. 

"California has something like 30 inspectors," Bender said, acknowledging his outfit's relatively small size. "But rail safety has improved, and we feel like we're part of that." Bender's colleague, FRA Program Manager Lugene Bastian, is not swayed when a reporter suggests that although the risks may have decreased, the stakes are high, particularly in capital cities. 

"Right behind the state capitol is the Harrisburg Rail Yard, and it's six miles long," said Bastian. "Across the river is the Enola Yard, one of the oldest in the country. These crude oil trains pass right by every day. You could probably see the engineer in the cab if you've got good eyesight." 

Yet Pennsylvania experienced just "a few derailments" last year and no leaks, she said. "It has the potential to be ugly, but it's still one of the safest ways to move more products."

Legislative Reform in DC

DC Council members have acknowledged the District's regulatory shortcomings. The Rail Safety and Security Oversight Agency Establishment Act of 2015, introduced January 6 by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, Ward 3 member Mary Cheh and At-Large member David Grosso, proposes to tighten rail cargo transparency and reporting rules by requiring the District to conduct rail security inspections, coordinate those activities with neighboring jurisdictions and report hazardous cargo to the FRA. 

"I don't think DC is prepared to know what is happening on the rail lines and it is not prepared to respond and manage the system the way it should or could," Allen said last week. Allen was at a Council hearing last year and was struck by all the finger-pointing after questions arose about what travels through the city. "The hearing showed me that no one is in charge," he said. "We need to know that DC has a plan for rail safety. This creates a new system of accountability to know what's on the rails and to have some degree of oversight on what we don't want."

Residents in neighborhoods where CSX operates are keenly interested to see how the Council handles the measure.  

Ward 6 resident Maureen Cohen Harrington has testified before the DC Council, urging mandates for staffing, risk assessment and reduction, adequate funding, performance standards and transparency measures. "On one level it's a big 'Duh,'" Harrington said. "It's inconceivable that it ever passed the laugh test [to not have a program]."

Monte Edwards, a Ward 6 resident who, like Harrington, sits on the Federal City Committee of 100, criticized the District for not imposing speed limits, operational requirements and rail inspections. Edwards is working with Allen's office to study how the proposed legislation differs from what other states do. "Federal certified inspectors get a car-by-car look at rail cargo," Edwards said. "We'd have the right to see what is coming into our city in real time."

Ward 7 residents have reason to support the bill as well. Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River, DC, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, said CSX trains carrying "all kinds of chemicals" are within the evacuation zone of Historic Anacostia, Metro lines, schools, businesses and residences. The community already is plagued by toxic sites, said Chestnut, pointing to the Kenilworth Landfill, the former PEPCO plant and Poplar Point, where vacated greenhouses once used by the US Department of Agriculture sit and deteriorate. 

"The area is saturated with people," Chestnut said. "An accident involving hazardous material would be horrendous."

Doolittle, the CSX spokesman, said the company is sensitive to community concerns about the shipment of hazardous materials. "We are currently evaluating the proposed rail-safety legislation and will provide comments as the DC legislative process moves forward," he said. 

Council member Cheh did not respond to a request for comment. Council member Grosso's office said he was not available at press time for this article.

Aside from HSEMA and FEMS, the other District agency with any authority over rail cargo is the DC Department of the Environment, but that is in reaction to a spill caused by derailment or other malfunction. DDOE Director Tommy Wells said DC has lacked a rail safety oversight program because it is not a port city, was under federal control until 1975, and still has a unique relationship with the federal government. 

Wells said he supports creating an inspection program but with some consideration of "what problem we are solving." He said HSEMA has "semi-confidential" access to information about hazardous materials passing through the District, and that to assume they are not doing some level of inspection "is probably not true." Besides, he said, the chemicals noted by the News 4 trainspotters were low ignition: "We do have molten sulphur, and if it spilled it would be a smelly mess, but that would be more of an environmental issue. And just because we haven't been a part of the FRA program does not mean CSX gets a pass on meeting federal safety requirements."

To Allen, the devil is in the details, and looking to the FRA participation program is only the beginning of a long-overdue process. "As we go through the legislative route it will allow us to hear from more experts to see what is needed and how to implement it."

An earlier version of this story may have mistakenly given the impression that CSX routed freight through Union Station. CSX freight trains moving through the District pass through Anacostia and then through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel on their way to the Long Bridge. CCN regrets the error.

Additional information concerning a November 2009 CSX derailment has been added to the story since its publication on the web and in February 2015 The Hill Rag newspaper.


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