GAO: Despite agency efforts, rail shipments remain vulnerable to attack

Train cars carrying hazardous materials to their destination remain vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, private rail transport companies, the Transportation Department and the Transportation Security Administration, now part of the Homeland Security Department, have taken several measures to protect trains carrying dangerous materials, GAO said. For example, Transportation in March issued new security requirements for rail shipping companies. In December 2001, rail industry representatives designed a four-level system to gauge the level of terrorist threat, and outlined precautions to accompany each threat level.

But existing security measures do not go far enough, according to GAO. In 2001, the United States' 170,000-mile railroad system carried more than 83 million tons of hazardous substances, including flammable materials, ammonia and chemical waste. Many shipments traveled through populated areas.

In addition, the rail companies lack concrete guidance on the extent to which they are required to notify communities of dangerous shipments passing through, the report (GAO-03-435) said. Local emergency responders also lack specific guidance on how to measure their level of readiness for hazardous spills.

From December 2001 to March 2003, GAO researchers met with emergency response teams in 10 different communities near train tracks to analyze their preparations for possible accidents or terrorist attacks involving hazardous materials. Researchers also met with local officials, federal regulators and federal agency officials.

The GAO report recommended that the Transportation and Homeland Security departments develop a joint plan for assessing security vulnerabilities in the U.S. rail system.

The Transportation and the Homeland Security departments should base their joint strategy on evaluations of current rail security measures and existing gaps or vulnerabilities, the watchdog agency recommended. The departments should also create a standard method for deciding if emergency response teams in towns along the railroad are adequately prepared to confront an accident involving hazardous materials.

Transportation and Homeland Security generally agreed with the report.