Photos: Deadly D.C. Metro collision

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  1. Federal and local investigators examine the wreckage of a Metro train collision in Washington on Tuesday, June 23. Nine were killed on Monday in the collision, the deadliest in the 33-year history of Washington's Metro Area Transit Authority. (Larry Downing / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Investigators examine the scene after two Metrorail commuter trains collided in Washington, D.C., during the evening rush-hour on Monday. The transit system links Washington with suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tijuana Cox, of Prince George's County, Md., who was injured in the Metrorail train crash, stands near the scene. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. One car rests atop another after the collision between the Fort Totten and Takoma Park stations. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Recue crews work at the scene. A witness reported hearing a loud boom like a "thunder crash" and then sirens. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The darkness didn't stop the search for victims. Metro chief John Catoe said the first train was stopped on the tracks when the trailing train plowed into it from behind. (Robert Giroux / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A passenger is taken to hospital after the Metrorail train disaster. District of Columbia fire spokesman Alan Etter said crews had to cut some people out. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rescue crews climb into the wreckage of the two Metrorail trains. Each train had six cars and was capable of holding as many as 1,200 people. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A body is removed from the wreckage of the Metrorail disaster on June 22. The crash caused cars from both trains to rip open and smash together in the worst accident in the Metrorail system's history. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Emergency workers search for victims at site of the Metrorail accident on June 22. Ladders helped survivors scramble to safety. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 6/28/2009 12:22:28 AM ET 2009-06-28T04:22:28

When derailed freight train cars carrying ethanol burst into flames just 50 miles from her Chicago suburb, killing a motorist who tried to flee, Barrington (Ill.) Mayor Karen Darch saw her worst fears realized.

"This is exactly the kind of thing we've been afraid of," said Darch, who tried but failed to stop a railroad sale that will boost freight traffic through her village. "Any community could find themselves in that situation."

The derailment earlier this month highlights the struggle to prevent such disasters along the 140,000-mile U.S. rail network. The pressure is on to tackle outstanding safety issues with hazardous-cargo shipments expected to soar in coming years. Fears that terrorists might view chemical-laden tankers as easy targets adds to the urgency.

But competing interests that sometimes pit the government against railroads, suburbs against cities or chemical makers against environmentalists complicate efforts to secure the transport of about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous material per year.

Smaller cities crying foul over regulations
One of the most contentious issues has been new federal regulation requiring that companies reroute trains hauling the most toxic materials away from big cities. Those rules apply to substances that can vaporize, like chlorine.

A 2005 train crash in Graniteville, S.C., that killed nine people and injured hundreds of others involved chlorine, used by cities to purify water. The wreck ruptured a car carrying the chemical, releasing a poisonous cloud over the town.

Tankers amount to "hell on wheels rolling through our communities," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has said in support of the rerouting rules. In a catastrophic event, Markey said, tankers contain enough chlorine to kill 100,000 people in 30 minutes.

Other new federal rules that have been partially implemented require that new tankers be better fortified to lessen chances of spills or explosions. Amid current economic woes, though, railways aren't buying many new tankers.

Rail companies note accidents already are at historic lows.

Out of the more than a million train cars that carried hazardous cargo in 2008, there were 21 train accidents where some material was released; that's down from 118 in 1980, according to federal data.

"You're at a very high level of safety right now," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group.

Industry pushing back on rerouting rules
Authorities have long deemed trains the safest way to move hazardous material. That's reflected in a federal mandate dating back at least 100 years requiring railroads carry such cargo, whether they like it or not.

Partly from fear that liability for a major accident could bankrupt them, some companies have called for that requirement to be canceled or eased. Federal officials have resisted such moves.

"Isn't it a little unfair to both require railroads to carry this stuff, and then say they are fully liable?" White asked.

Some railroads have opposed mandatory rerouting of hazardous freight — a rule debated for years before its final implementation early this year. They argued there's often no alternative to running trains through cities and that upgrading out-of-the-way tracks to bear tanker-car loads would prove costly.

"Rerouting can also substantially increase the distance a material travels and the amount of handling it requires," White said. "That in itself can increase the safety risk."

Among 27 criteria railways are required to consider as they draw up rerouting plans is whether tankers pass by what regulators call "iconic targets" — well-known landmarks terrorists might want to hit. Plans are due in to regulators in a few months.

Some rail companies already are steering more trains onto lines that cut through villages, towns and suburbs to bypass chronic train-track congestion in Chicago, the nation's premier rail hub.

Outlying communities say that the mandatory reroutes increase their exposure to derailments.

Canadian National Railway, whose train derailed in Rockford in northern Illinois, is among those seeking ways to avoid Chicago. CN recently bought the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway line that loops around Chicago and through 30 suburbs.

CN declined to discuss the Rockford accident. Federal investigators say it could take a year to pinpoint a cause.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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