Earlier this year I wrote a blog about the National Transportation Safety Board waving the red flag on rail security and safety. Among its top priorities in 2016 is the need to counter the risk of disastrous tank car explosions in major cities and prevent tragedies like last year’s fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. As outlined in a January Washington Post article, “the NTSB sent a stern message to Congress and federal regulators about the potential consequences of a rail accident…NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart invoked the memory of a runaway train that derailed in flames in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, in 2013, killing 47 people and burning down more than 30 buildings.”

Train Safety Still Vulnerable

“We’ve been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart said in the article. “But an American version of Lac-Mégantic could happen at any time. Instead of happening out in the middle of a wheat field it could happen in the middle of a big city.”

Chairman Hart was unfortunately correct in his prediction. On May 1, another CSX freight train derailed in Northeast Washington, D.C. spilling hazardous chemicals along a busy rail corridor. The wreck stranded some residents away from their homes, forced the closure of a Metro station and created major traffic jams as emergency personnel sought to contain the leaks and clear the wreckage.

Officials released a statement saying that three of the tank cars were found to be leaking, including 750 gallons of the liquid contents of a tanker containing sodium hydroxide, a chemical which CSX said is used to produce various household products, including paper, soap and detergents. Another car leaked ethanol and another calcium chloride.

Rail Plans Essential for Urban Areas

The spill underscores the need for leaders in Washington D.C. to devise a comprehensive rail plan, similar to state plans required under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. The District Department of Transportation says it expects a rail plan to be completed later this summer. Our firm is a strong proponent of such a plan. We have found common challenges between passenger and freight rail systems, primarily with the funding of security enhancements. Although some security improvements are inexpensive, such as removing trash cans from subway platforms, most require substantial funding.

4 Strategic Steps to Security Risk Management

Following those four steps can help your organization be better prepared for any emergency that might occur. 

  1. Conduct vulnerability or risk assessments – Either in-house or with an outside third-party.
  2. Increase emergency drills – Put a plan in place so the organization is better prepared to handle any situation.
  3. Develop or revise security plans – Make sure they are updated and that employees are aware of any revisions.
  4. Conduct tabletop exercises – This is a key component in preparing for any emergency.

After any type of emergency, organizations most often focus on a reactive approach to the situation – how can we move forward? Instead, I suggest we all learn from this instance and take a proactive, prevention-oriented approach. 

Photo: Wall Street Journal