As alarmed communities complain about dangerous cargo running on the tracks through their towns, new rules for handling such cargo are set to take effect.
Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway.
Recently, resolutions seeking more information from the railroads have been approved in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham, Wash., and are being debated by the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota, among other places.
The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. Last July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the border with the United States, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.
Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of “iconic targets” like sports arenas along the way.
That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.
The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.
But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.