Hazmat incidents involving rail cars on the rise

Number of cars carrying hazardous materials increased 152% in one state over the last 10 years

By Kyle Nagel
Dayton Daily News

MORAINE, Ohio — The number of railroad cars carrying hazardous materials involved in accidents in Ohio increased by 152 percent in the past 10 years — from 129 in 2002 to 326 last year — but industry officials stress railroad safety and the industry's importance to the economy.

While total railroad accidents and incidents decreased 41 percent to 270 last year, hazmat car involvement continued a 10-year climb. Last year, 49 of the 326 cars carrying hazardous material in accidents were damaged or derailed, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Two incidents this week highlighted railroad safety in Ohio.

Early Wednesday morning, a train derailment in Columbus caused three tanker cars carrying ethanol to explode and burn with a fire that reportedly could be seen for miles. Thursday morning, two empty trains collided in downtown Akron.

"We are moving as much freight today that has ever been moved by the railroad industry, and we work very hard to keep things safe," said Arthur Arnold, president of the Ohio Railroad Association. "Shippers that rely on rail service and facilities would have to close down if the rail service was not available."

Ohio's rail industry ranks in the top 10 nationally in most categories, including fourth in rail miles (5,303), fifth in employment (7,154) and sixth in freight railroads in operation (35).

Some question whether transporting hazardous materials through major cities is safe, especially following Wednesday's incident in Columbus. Industry supporters say shipping material via railroads is fast, efficient and more environmentally friendly than trucking.

"I certainly think, for the most part, rail traffic and rail operations in Ohio are safe," said Matt Butler, a spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates rail traffic in the state. "We have inspectors out there on a daily basis.

"Unfortunately, events like what happened here in Columbus do happen from time to time, but overall, the condition of rail operations in Ohio is safe."

Rail industry
The railroad industry struggled in the 1970s, to the point that some trains idling on tracks would derail while sitting still because the infrastructure was in such disarray, Arnold said. Deregulation allowed railroads to set more appropriate prices and allow more investment in infrastructure, he said.

The state created the Ohio Rail Development Commission in 1994 to foster relationships with railroad companies and aid rail's efforts to drive economic development. Observers say the state's efforts have led to a greater focus on railroads in Ohio.

"In general, there has been a very steady increase in demand to move freight by rail," said Christopher Smith, intermodal policy and program manager for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Ohio in particular is at a geographic crossroads for rail."

Businesses considering relocating to Ohio are educated about their potential proximity to rail shipping, and in some cases the state and railroad companies will help build company-specific materials or facilities for shipping. Last year, 276.4 million tons of material were shipped on Ohio's railways.

Industry supporters say railroad activity is a key economic driver. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight railroads are involved in $265 billion in economic activity annually.

"Everyone's day-to-day interaction with (shipping) is with trucks on the highway, but they don't often consider the (railroad) side," said Julianne Kaercher, spokesperson for the Ohio Rail Development Commission. "Once you do that, you see it's extremely significant. It's a huge economic driver in Ohio."

Freight in Ohio
One of the rail industry's main arguments in favor of increasing railroad use is decreasing trucking activity on the nation's highways. One freight train, the Association of American Railroads says, transports material that would require more than 280 trucks.

Arnold, of the Ohio Railroad Association, said railroad companies invest in their own infrastructure, while trucking companies operate on publicly financed highways and roads. The trucking industry says that it transports more total material than railroads and is working to increase the amount carried per truck to ease traffic.

"They say, 'We're safer, we're safer,' but if you got it, a truck brought it to you," said Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association. "A rail car might pull up to a factory, but it won't pull up to a store or to a business. We continue to work together to foster more efficiency."

This week's incidents, though, have cast new concern on the safety of hazardous materials transportation. About 10 percent of trains traveling through Ohio have "some form of chemical or other HAZMAT on board," according to PUCO. Nationally, 7,459 rail cars carrying hazardous materials were involved in incidents last year, an increase of 12.7 percent from 2002.

"Ohio is a leader nationally in terms of traffic in general," said Butler of PUCO. "Safety is, of course, one of our big priorities, which is why we have investigators out constantly to make sure things are as safe as they can be."

Copyright 2012 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

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