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Trains vulnerable to terrorism

By William Hermann The Arizona Republic Oct. 08, 2001 12:00:00

Politicians and intelligence experts warn that the next terrorist attack could come on the ground instead of in the air.

Trains are particularly vulnerable because they carry huge amounts of hazardous materials through major population centers, such as the Valley, every day.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is alerting hazardous materials shippers to be careful, telling them: "In the wrong hands hazardous materials pose a threat to security. It doesn't take a high degree of training, technical expertise, or sophisticated equipment to attack with devastating results."

The FBI is concerned as well.

"We know that in dealing with a person like Osama bin Laden, more could happen," Phoenix FBI spokesman Ed Hall said. "Obviously, you have to consider rail and trucks and hazardous material and how they might be used."

Attacks on or utilizing trains have long been recognized as a potential terrorist threat. In a 1998 speech, then-Deputy Transportation Secretary Mortimer Downey said that terrorist training manuals "include rail sabotage as a recommended operation, so the potential for destructive action is clear."

Trains carrying tons of acids, jet fuel, propane, nuclear waste and potentially explosive chemical fertilizers, run through the heart of most Valley cities almost daily. Union Pacific Railroad alone, for instance, transports about 1 million carloads of hazardous materials each year nationwide, and much of that material goes through metro Phoenix en route to the West Coast.

Terrorists have struck Arizona rail lines before. In October 1995, someone pulled out a rail spike at a desert railroad bridge about 40 miles southwest of the Valley, causing a derailment of a Sunset Limited passenger train that killed one person and injured 78. The perpetrators, who in a note left at the scene called themselves Sons of the Gestapo, have never been caught.

That same year, a truck loaded with the chemical fertilizer ammonium nitrate destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building.

Hundreds of times the amount of ammonium nitrate used in Oklahoma City pass through the Valley on rail lines each year. But other materials, such as propane, could be used to even greater effect, experts say. A railroad tank car carries about 34,000 gallons of propane.

"When you consider the tremendous explosive effect of propane, you realize that rail cars of propane igniting could cause devastating damage," Nicholas Hild of the Arizona State University College of Technology said. "The blast radius of a propane car could be more than a half-mile."

That puts all of downtown Glendale, Phoenix and Tempe within the blast zone that would emanate from a catastrophic rail line explosion.

Hild noted that other chemicals, including fertilizers such as anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, "also have the potential for terrible damage. Those are commonly used chemicals in agricultural, come through on the rail lines all the time, and they are terribly dangerous. Anhydrous ammonia has an acutely toxic effect on humans when they breathe it. Ammonium nitrate is what (Timothy) McVeigh used. He had to add fuel and ignite it, but it was ammonium nitrate all the same."

The problem of guarding rail lines is daunting. In fact, the job of protecting the railroad system falls not to state law enforcement but to the rail companies and their security employees. Though the Arizona Department of Public Safety responds to hazardous material spills and accidents, it takes no responsibility for protecting the rail lines. Municipal police respond only to accidents within their jurisdictions.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has, however, instructed its deputies to keep an eye on rural rails. "There are many miles of tracks and there is considerable vulnerability, but it's something we're addressing," sheriff's Capt. Keith Frakes said. "Our deputies have been told to watch our for four-wheel-drive vehicles near the tracks, people near the tracks, in rural areas. We're watching for suspicious activity."

Frakes also said, "Some other things are being done, but we're not discussing that."

The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway has 33,500 miles of rail in the United States and 595 miles in Arizona. "We are on heightened alert at all our facilities and have beefed up security at our yards and loading facilities" spokeswoman Lena Kent said.

"Our employees have been told to watch out along the lines," she said. "We're also in constant contact with the federal railroad administration, the FBI and local police."Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Mike Furtney said that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, "we checked all our structures that might be susceptible to terrorist attacks: buildings, tanks, trestles and bridges. Our police are maintaining the highest vigilance they can over 36,000 miles of mainline track, with 700 of those miles in Arizona."

Furtney said that as dangerous as the hazardous materials hauled on the trains might be, "they also help fuel our economic life."

"Our economy demands that we have certain hazardous materials available," Furtney said. "That means propane, chlorine and other hazardous materials that serve our agriculture and make our water pure are transported on rail lines. We're doing everything we can to keep those materials safe."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 09, 2001

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