railcarsHow many towns and cities have a railroad line running near or through them? Do you know what is in all those tanker cars? Probably not. Can you find out? The answer is a resounding ‘No!’. Citing national security, the Federal Railroad Administration guards such information from not only the public but also first responder teams. Why? Estimates for a railroad disaster involving Toxic Inhalant Hazards (TIH) in a major metropolitan area are 100,000 dead or injured within the first 30 minutes with a mortality rate of 100 people per second.

The lengthy supply chain involved in railroad transportation of hazardous materials is a necessary evil to keep fuel supplied to our gas stations, anhydrous ammonia to fertilizer plants, and chlorine to our water purification plants. As we saw in Boston, the know-how to build improvised weapons such as pressure cooker bombs perfected in low intensity conflict theaters such as Iraq have entered our own backyards. Although there are no recorded terror incidents on US soil involving TIH materials, several TIH-related terror attacks have been recorded in Iraq. A ruptured tanker car of ammonia would create a ground-hugging toxic cloud 5 miles wide and 15 miles long. Ammonia was used to great effect as a chemical weapon in World War 1 trenches.

Terrible casualties do not need to be the result of a well-coordinated extremist assault. Railroad accidents happen and, if the numbers are accurate, they are happening with frighteningly greater regularity. Aging infrastructure and the increasing amount of hazardous materials traveling by rail as a result of fracking mean the dice are rolling with ever greater frequency. Lac-Megantic, Quebec, demonstrated the dangers of crude oil shipments with the explosion of over 70 tanker cars traveling through an urban area. Railroad shipments of crude oil tripled between 2011 and 2012 in North America.

A quick dive into the topic of fracking helps us understand the increased danger we now face. Due to fracking, the US will become the largest producer of petroleum in the world by 2013. The troubling reality is that the hazardous chemicals required by the fracking process and the crude oil that results will be transported on our railroads. Combine aging infrastructure with this dramatic increase in shipments means every community should incorporate this potential disaster into their contingency planning.

We will continue our discussion in Railroad Hazards in Post 9/11 America, Part 2.

Matt S
Matt is a former infantry officer in the US Army with a degree in systems engineering from West Point. He currently works as an engineering consultant integrating hardware and software into new applications. He is a graduate of Airborne School, Air Assault School, and SERE-High Risk (Level C) at JFKSWCS.

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