TSA seeks to improve tracking of hazardous rail shipments

Proposal would give companies as little as five minutes to respond to requests for information on the location of shipments.

The Transportation Security Administration is set to propose a new rule that would require rail carriers to respond more quickly to government queries on the whereabouts of hazardous chemicals they transport through urban centers.

Under the proposed rule, slated for publication next week in the Federal Register, transporters of potentially explosive chemicals or those that could be lethal if inhaled would have as little as five minutes to tell federal investigators the precise location of rail shipments, in the highest risk situations. In less severe circumstances, the companies would be allowed up to half an hour to respond.

TSA Deputy Administrator Robert Jamison said Friday that full implementation of the proposed rule, available now on the agency's Web site, would cost the rail industry $162 million over 10 years. The agency's goal, he said, is to protect "densely populated areas" from the seizure or detonation of dangerous chemicals.

"The industry has to bear the cost … to undertake the [safety] measures," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "We haven't just sprung this as a surprise on the industry."

The regulation also would require industry officials to designate a rail security coordinator to work with federal officials and track and reduce "standstill" time for railroad cars carrying hazardous materials. Threats to chemicals are elevated when cars aren't moving, Chertoff said.

He said during his speech Friday that less than 1 percent of railroad cars carry dangerous chemicals.

Democrats leapt upon the announcement, calling for TSA to take further measures to improve rail safety.

"I am not convinced that all of the security gaps plaguing our current hazmat and passenger transit systems can be filled with this proposal," said incoming House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., following the DHS press conference Friday.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also a committee member, said the regulation fails to focus enough on hazardous materials as they are in transit. The proposal concentrates too heavily on dangers when a shipment is being transferred between operators or immobile, he said. DHS "appears to have ignored all possible measures that could eliminate the risk of an attack on a toxic shipment traveling through Boston, Chicago or Las Vegas," Markey said.

The Transportation Department is set to propose a separate rule that would require railroad companies to analyze security concerns along routes where hazardous materials are carried.

After the proposed TSA rule is published Dec. 21, there will be a 60-day comment period.