PAULSBORO, N.J. (AP) -- Federal regulations require inspections of rail bridges and other freight train-line infrastructure and reports on accidents, but leave it to rail line owners to do it themselves.
After a derailment that released thousands of gallons of a hazardous chemical into the air last week in New Jersey, forcing more than 200 households to be evacuated, a congressman from the area said Wednesday that it is time to end what he called "a culture of self-regulation" for the industry.
"We've got to come up with a sensible set of regulations," said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat who is planning to join three other members of Congress Thursday for a tour of the derailment site.
A spokeswoman for the industry said the rail companies have specific requirements from the Federal Railroad Administration and other regulators, and that it makes sense for companies to conduct their own inspections and report on their own accidents.
"We are the only mode of transportation that owns, maintains and repairs its own infrastructure," said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. "It is in the railroad's interest to ensure that infrastructure is world-class."
Many standards for rail operation, she said, are laid out in federal regulations and the FRA has the power to penalize noncompliant railroads with civil penalties. She said that the industry is required by law to haul hazardous chemicals and that leaks are rare.
Last Friday, seven cars on an 84-car train derailed on or near a swivel-style bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro. A tanker car carrying vinyl chloride, a gas used to make PVC plastic, was ruptured, sending thousands of gallons of the chemical into the atmosphere.
Dozens of people who live or work nearby were checked out at an emergency room and none showed serious health effects. Since then, the people who live in more than 200 homes nearby in the industrial town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport have been evacuated. Vinyl chloride levels have intermittently risen high enough that workers trying to recover the remaining chemical, which naturally hardened into a solid, have been pulled off the scene.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and has not ruled on its cause.
But board chairman Deborah Hersman has laid out how the bridge, originally built in 1873, had problems in the weeks leading up to the derailment. When the train that derailed pulled up to the swivel-style structure on Friday, the signal light was red. She said that was an indication that all four locking mechanisms on the bridge were not secured. But after the train's conductor looked at the structure, he received permission from a dispatcher several miles away to cross even under a red light.
Hersman was careful to say that the train crew members followed their training.
But Andrews said that guidance may have been incorrect.
He said it's a similar story with other railroad matters. Conrail and the FRA may have been following their protocol, he said.
But the rules themselves could be flawed.
There was a derailment on the same bridge in August 2009.
But from the publicly available documents on the earlier accident, it's hard to tell whether the derailments were similar.
Consolidated Rail Corp. and Norfolk-Southern, at the time co-owners of the line, each filed the requisite one-page form on the accident, which caused $480,000 in damage when nine coal cars derailed. According to a code on the form the cause was found to be "bridge misalignment."
Each form contained just one sentence of written description of what happened.
Neither the FRA nor the NTSB investigated the accident — and neither agency was required to do so.
Railroad experts agree that there are relatively few of these swivel-type bridges remaining out of an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 freight rail bridges across the country.
But FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson said the agency does not keep a complete inventory of bridges.
That, too, is up to their owners, as are most regular bridge inspections.
Andrews said he believes that an independent agency should have a greater role in rail safety, especially for trains carrying hazardous materials that, if spilled, can jeopardize public health.
He said it's Congress that needs to force such changes.
Bob Comer, an Ohio man who has investigated 300 train accidents, most on his own and some as an expert witness for plaintiff's lawyers in lawsuits, said the problems run deep.
"All the way back to 1825 when the railroad industry started in the United States," he said, "they have put money ahead of safety."
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