August 8, 2001
Railroad accidents are rising steadily in the US, from 2,397 in 1997 to 2,983 in 2000, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In 2000, 753 trains carrying hazardous substances had an accident and 35 released some of those hazardous substances to the environment.
Many railroads have been able to reduce their accident numbers and rates in the past four years, but a few have had substantial increases. Most accidents are increasingly attributed to human factors and problems with tracks and signals. FRA: Barbara Devine, 202-493-6024.
If a railroad accident occurs in your community, an initial source of information likely will be your local fire department and other emergency responders. But if they are tight-lipped, you can get some basic facts from the US Coast Guard Natl. Response Center, to which pollution accidents of many types are supposed to be reported: 800-424-8802. The NRC's Web site also is a good source for identifying historical accident patterns in your community. NRC media: Syed Qadir, 202-267-6352.
Another immediate source of limited information is the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (ChemTrec), run by the American Chemistry Council and used primarily by emergency responders and law enforcement officials: 800-424-9300. ChemTrec operators also can direct reporters to the appropriate contact person for the railroad involved.
The Natl. Transportation Safety Board investigates about 1% of all railroad accidents. NTSB media: 202-314-6100. EPA also gets involved after some accidents - contact the regional EPA press office.
For more in-depth journalistic investigations, try talking to transportation industry investment analysts. One starting point is the Assoc. for Investment Mgmt. and Research: Rich Wyler, 434-951-5344. Another angle: many railroad companies insure themselves.
Communities are required by federal law to have a plan for emergencies such as railroad accidents and hazardous spills. Such plans usually are developed and monitored by volunteers staffing Local Emergency Planning Committees. Little funding usually is provided, although the US Dept. of Transportation has grant money available, unknown to some LEPCs.