New Jersey Transit
Mike Derer  /  AP file
Rail tanker cars sit on tracks that are only a few yards from traffic passing on the New Jersey Turnpike in Elizabeth, N.J. 
NBC News and news services
updated 12/15/2006 12:29:17 PM ET 2006-12-15T17:29:17

The Department of Homeland Security on Friday unveiled a plan to tighten security on the nation’s rail system. But the proposal was criticized even before it was released by Democratic lawmakers, who said it was too little, too late.

The Homeland Security proposal would require freight and passenger rail systems to inspect rail cars and keep them in secure areas when not in use. They also would  tighten surveillance of rail cars carrying toxic substances in “high threat urban areas.”

"A toxic emission from an attack against a chemical facility or hazardous chemicals in transit is among the most serious risks facing America's highest threat areas,"  Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in announcing the proposal. "We're going to take a significant percentage of that risk off the table."

Democrats, set to take control of Congress next month, said they’d file bills to require tighter security for railroads.

Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, a senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he wants extremely hazardous materials to be rerouted away from places where an attack could do the most damage.

'Half measures' won't do
A major concern is that terrorists would attack or sabotage a rail car filled with poisonous chemicals, which would spread quickly and kill thousands.

“We have already seen attacks on rail systems in Madrid, London and India,” Markey said. “We simply cannot rely on half-measures such as the ones that have been proposed.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he’ll reintroduce legislation that would do more to protect passengers and cargo.

“The Bush Administration should have acted to improve our rail security years ago,” Lautenberg said.

The proposal would give the Transportation Security Administration authority to inspect railroads, rail yards and mass transit rail systems.

The 708 railroads affected would have to designate a rail security coordinator to receive intelligence from the government, and would have to report significant security concerns and potential threats.

The proposal also would require receivers of hazardous materials to keep the rail car in a secure area until it is unloaded. Freight railroads would have to report the location of a rail car when requested by the government.

James Carafano, homeland security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Democrats are unrealistic about how much their proposals will cost.

“We can bankrupt ourselves trying to childproof everything,” said Carafano. He advocates the approach taken by Homeland Security, with minimal regulation and cooperation by the private sector.

Fight over ban on hazardous material
The plan does not match what at least nine cities have proposed — rerouting around densely populated areas trains that are carrying hazardous material.

The District of Columbia passed a law in 2005 banning hazardous material shipments within 2.2 miles of the Capitol. CSX Transportation sued; the case is pending.

The rail industry fears that other cities would follow Washington’s lead if the city prevails. Eight other cities have introduced legislation to ban hazardous shipments.

Railroads say forcing trains to take longer, circuitous routes would create a safety hazard by increasing the likelihood of an accident.

The Federal Railroad Administration has met with freight railroads in an effort to come up with voluntary efforts to secure hazardous materials.

TSA chief Kip Hawley previously was a senior executive with Union Pacific.

The eight cities that introduced legislation to require trains carrying hazardous material be rerouted around them are Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Albany and Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Baltimore and St. Louis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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