Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

Return to the home page

Return to Transportation Security Topics

Securing Rail Freight

By Steve Dunham

Journal of Homeland Security, February 2003. Copyright 2003 Analytic Services. Reprinted by permission.

“Terrorists may seek to endanger the population by attacking trains carrying hazardous or nuclear materials,” noted William C. Thompson of Jacobs Engineering Group in a January 2002 presentation to the Transportation Research Board,1 and he pointed out that railroads are “major carriers of hazardous materials.”

“Terrorists may seek to disrupt essential governmental shipments of military equipment by attacking trains or routes essential to that traffic,” he continued. “Terrorists may seek to disrupt the US economy by disrupting commercially essential shipments.”

Attacks could range from simple damage carried out with hand tools to sabotage using sophisticated weapons: “Railroad tracks and switches are vulnerable to attacks by unbolting of joint bars or misalignment of switches,” said Thompson. “Railroad bridges are vulnerable to attack by explosives. Railroad tunnels are vulnerable to attacks by explosives and chem-bio agents. Railroad control and dispatching systems are vulnerable to explosive and to cyber attacks.”

A derailment in Baltimore on 18 July 2001 indicated the kind of havoc that can result from a freight train derailment in an urban area. “Civil defense sirens wailed and major highways into Baltimore were closed after a freight train hauling hazardous chemicals caught fire yesterday afternoon in a century-old railroad tunnel under Howard Street, shutting down much of the city’s downtown,” the Baltimore Sun reported the next day.2 Howard Street is one of the main shopping streets in Baltimore, and on the surface it carries a light-rail transit line fed by four branches; the Howard Street trackage is the trunk line. “Fiber optic cables running through the tunnel where the train caught fire, midway on a major line between New York and Miami, were destroyed,” said the Sun, and the electronic disruption was felt as far away as Africa.3 “Freight trains were stalled, canceled and diverted hundreds of miles throughout the Middle Atlantic States … because of the blocked Howard Street Tunnel, owned by CSX Transportation”4 (the largest railroad in the eastern United States). A parallel line—Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston—was able to absorb some of the freight traffic from the CSX line, but Amtrak’s route is so busy with passenger trains that freight moves only at night. Baseball games at nearby Oriole Park were canceled for three days, and commuter trains stopped serving the adjacent Camden Station.

Besides the disruption to commerce and travel, there was the hazard to residents, downtown workers, and emergency responders. “Many of the freight cars were carrying wood pulp and other combustibles, but nine were carrying chemicals from North Carolina to New Jersey, including five tank cars full of acids,” reported the Sun.5 One tank car carrying tripropylene and another carrying hydrochloric acid were punctured. “But no one—not even those who would have to respond to an accident—knows what dangerous materials are crossing the city at any given time, though many shipments carry the potential for disaster,” stated the Sun.6

The U.S. Conference of Mayors believes that “freight railroads should be required to develop new notification procedures and to provide better information to the local jurisdictions through which they will be transporting chemicals and other hazardous materials”; that “improved notification and information should extend to the storage of freight on sidings and to other practices that could pose risks to immediate neighborhoods and major local assets and venues”; and that “in the interim, freight railroads are strongly urged to continue to meet with local officials on ways to improve communication concerning potentially hazardous cargo or other activity that could result in security risks for communities.”7

Federal officials, disagree, however, according to the Sun:

Alerting communities in advance, they said, could have a dangerous result—inadvertently informing someone interested in sabotage or terrorism.

“The key is to get the appropriate information to the emergency crews as soon as it’s determined there is an emergency,” said George Gavalla, safety director for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Within 15 minutes of being called … the [Baltimore] Fire Department knew the contents of the train [in the Howard Street tunnel], including caustic acids that can cause severe burns and lung damage.

Still, such information falls short, said Assistant Chief Michael Dalton. “What the manifest doesn’t tell you is what can happen if the tankers rupture and the chemicals mix,” he said. “Then the whole picture changes. It can create its own witches’ brew and there wouldn’t even be a chemical name for it.”8

The fire burned for five days. Although no one was killed by the accident, and the firefighters succeeded in quenching the fire, Baltimore did not have a plan for dealing with a fire in the downtown tunnel. “Gene Reynolds, a chemical safety expert at FMC Corp. in Fairfield and an emergency planner [in Baltimore] for 18 years, said local officials never devised a plan for combating an accident in the tunnel because they thought a fire there would burn itself out,” reported the Sun. “And if toxic gas were to seep from the tunnel, they thought that it could not be effectively contained.

“The plan—drafted in 1987—devotes two of 440 pages to the risk of chemicals spilling or burning on roads or railways. It includes no highway or rail maps, no assessment of accident-prone intersections and no list of chemicals traveling through the city or the routes that they take.” Furthermore, “in most chemical emergencies people are instructed to ‘shelter in place,’ closing windows and turning off air conditioners to keep out toxic fumes. But most of the city’s schools, hospitals and nursing homes have no plan for such action, and officials don’t know which buildings are airtight enough to be safe.”9 After the accident, the mayor asked the city’s emergency planners to review the plan.10

In 2002, CSX Transportation issued a new emergency planning guide to “more than 2,500 state and local emergency response and planning agencies across the eastern United States. The new manual gives detailed information concerning a wide range of possible occurrences, including the threat of terrorism.”11

Six days after the accident, freight trains were running through the tunnel again, most of the streets were clear, and commuter trains to and from Washington, DC, were once again serving Camden Station. The light-rail line and a major intersection at Howard and Lombard Streets, damaged by flooding from a water main break, remained closed till September.

Just as Baltimore was completing its recovery from the July accident, terrorists struck America, focusing renewed attention on the vulnerability of the nation’s transport network. (Rail tunnels, though not a direct target of the attacks, suffered: the Port Authority Trans-Hudson rapid transit line and other subway routes to the World Trade Center were put out of service, and tunnels in New York and Washington were temporarily closed as a security measure.)

Immediately following the 11 September attacks, America’s freight railroads jacked up security. “Some trains were stopped and cargo inspected,” reported BNSF Today in September 2001 (BNSF—Burlington Northern Santa Fe—is one of the nation’s largest freight railroads). “Critical infrastructure, including key bridges and tunnels, was checked and rechecked. Extra security has been placed around rail yards, control facilities, dispatch centers, and other crucial areas.” The industry, said the report, would “continue to beef up security around important facilities” while “taking a long-term look at how to best deal with this new threat of global terrorism.”12

“Freight railroads instituted a heightened state of alert, mobilizing all available railroad police to work 12 hours shifts, increasing track patrols, hiring additional security personnel, and stationing people at strategic locations (tunnels, bridges, hazardous material yards),” Curt Secrest of the Federal Railroad Administration told the Pennsylvania Joint Rail Freight Seminar in Philadelphia on 9 May 2002. “Some railroads temporarily halted transportation of hazardous materials through populated areas and strategic locations until security personnel could be put in place.”13

The Association of American Railroads created teams to look at physical assets (bridges, tunnels, control centers and dispatching centers), critical lines that may be used for defense purposes, information technology and communications, operational security, hazardous materials, and passenger trains.14, 15 The Physical Infrastructure Critical Action Team identified 1,308 vital facilities.16 The Military Liaison Critical Action Team came up with a plan for a Railway Alert Network; the network’s hub is the Surface Transportation Information Sharing and Analysis Center—a “clearinghouse for information on threats, vulnerabilities and solutions to physical and cyber infrastructure security.”17 Four levels of alert status range from normal day-to-day operations up to “Confirmed Threat,” with tightened security and operational measures.

Tightened security is a limited thing on something as expansive as a railroad, however. “It is physically impossible to guarantee the security of every passenger, employee, track segment, bridge, tunnel and train,” said Secrest. “It is necessary to rank components by importance and vulnerability.” The Federal Railroad Administration “has identified specific facilities as being top candidates for attack”; these include bridges, tunnels, interlockings, maintenance shops, cars and locomotives, intermodal facilities, hazmat loading and unloading areas, information technology locations, and train dispatching centers. “Terrorists can monitor data in the IT system to plan or enhance an attack on some other aspect of the railroad. They can also corrupt the data in order to cause the system to shut down or give false information to railroad operating personnel.” Railroads need to “look for inconsistencies such as weight, markings, manifest requirements and placarding.” They need to increase “surveillance of intermodal containers and tank containers, use of K9s in detecting explosives or drugs, and round-the-clock video surveillance of facilities.”18

Among its strategic goals, the Federal Railroad Administration lists working to “reduce the vulnerability of the Nation’s rail transportation network to crime and terrorism” and supporting “the ability of the Nation’s railroads to meet national defense needs.” It will “help identify threats and vulnerabilities to the Nation’s critical rail transportation system, establish an information-sharing process, and work with the private sector and other Federal, State, and local agencies to develop effective countermeasures.” It will “continue to promote the implementation of Presidential Decision Directive 63, which is aimed at protecting the transportation infrastructure against acts of terrorism,” and it will “lead the departmental initiative to address the issues and exchange information on the transportation of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel by all modes of transportation.”19

Coordination, information sharing, and communication are major roles for the federal government in encouraging enhanced security and helping the railroads decide where to apply their limited resources.

The Federal Railroad Administration “plays a liaison role between” the U.S. Department of Transportation “security office and the railroad industry,” Admiral James Underwood, Director of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Intelligence and Security, told the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine on 2 October 2001.20 He noted that since 11 September 2001, the Federal Railroad Administration had been “coordinating with freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads and industry groups, such as rail labor organizations, the Association of American Railroads, The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, and the American Public Transportation Association” to review security programs.

The Federal Railroad Administration is also, with other elements of the Department of Transportation,

investigating the availability and applicability of technological devices for rail cars and intermodal vehicles that can track the car, detect attempts to intrude into the cargo space, and provide remotely controlled locks for cargo doors (for packaged freight) and valves and hoppers (for bulk freight). Remote locks can enhance security by remaining closed until released by a radio signal from a secure location. Satellite positioning devices could further enhance security by verifying that the vehicle is at its proper destination before the locks are released.21
Another federal agency that is coordinating rail security measures and information sharing is the Customs Service. Rail carriers that choose to participate in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism agree to “provide an executive summary outlining the process elements of the security procedures” that are in place, ranging from facilities security to “internal codes of conduct.”22 They must have security systems for inbound foreign cargo and systems to make sure that all manifests and bills of lading are complete, and they must report any anomalies to Customs.23

Customs’ security recommendations for rail carriers include access control, physical security of structures and vehicles, procedures for challenging unauthorized persons on company property, employee background checks, education and training, and careful monitoring of cargo and manifests.24

Customs for its part agrees to review carriers’ security procedures; when feasible, assist with inspections; and, generally, cooperate mutually with the rail carrier.

Although the Customs Service and the Federal Railroad Administration are offering assistance to the freight railroads, they are only two pieces of a transportation security puzzle that begets the question of who is in charge. A May 2000 “National Transportation Technology Plan” created by the National Science and Technology Council noted that “assessing the potential threat to transportation facilities and the range of measures that can be taken to guard against them requires the participation and assent of all organizations, both public and private, involved in transportation operations and oversight. This includes numerous Federal agencies with transportation, law enforcement, and threat-analysis responsibilities, as well as their state and local counterparts; transit and port authorities; and private transportation providers.” In fact, the report cited the following as “all lead agencies”: the U.S. Department of Transportation (including the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, Maritime Administration, Research and Special Programs Administration, and U.S. Coast Guard), the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice (including the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the National Institute of Justice), the National Science Foundation; and the Department of the Treasury (U.S. Customs).25 Since then, the Transportation Security Administration was created in the Department of Transportation, but aside from working to secure air travel, it has scarcely lifted the security burden from all those other “lead agencies.”

While the federal government is providing a corps of security personnel for the aviation industry, the railroads (aside from government entities, mostly passenger carriers) are generally on their own when it comes to securing their property and cargo. Fortunately, although the federal departments have moved to assist U.S. industries by providing security assessments, training, and forums, American industries generally have not been waiting for federal leadership. However, they are concerned that federal mandates will materialize, perhaps requiring that newly adopted private security practices be scrapped and replaced with new, incompatible systems. For example, the $450 billion U.S. chemical industry, which ships large amounts of hazardous materials by rail, “is scrambling to develop effective security” and “wants do it on its own—before the government hands regulations down,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune. “… At the same time, the chemical industry, which is 85 percent privately owned, wants assurances that if it puts significant nonrevenue generating capital into security, the government will not shift gears later and require a different set of standards, said John Connelly, who is the American Chemistry Council’s security team leader.”26

In fact, much of the leadership in strengthening security has come from the freight railroads themselves. In an Association of American Railroads “Seminar on Site Security, Distribution Security, Customer Awareness and Risk Communications”27 on 6 December 2001, Louis J. Wagner, general director of chemical transportation safety for the Union Pacific Railroad (the nation’s largest railroad in terms of revenue), described the Union Pacific’s augmented security program. The railroad has engaged a security and intelligence specialist to provide expertise, compared employee records to FBI lists, continued background checks on new employees, and conducted security awareness briefings.

Besides increased security presence and inspections, the Union Pacific has rerouted certain hazmat where appropriate, limited certain hazmat near public events, and increased tracking and awareness of certain hazmat and munitions. The railroad also holds weekly teleconferences of railroad hazmat staff.

The railroad also coordinates with the food and chemical industries, works with shippers on supply chain logistics, periodically checks new procedures, and holds daily railroad police teleconferences. Furthermore, railroad personnel have talked to the National Guard for possible support, have increased coordination with military traffic managers, have coordinated security clearances, and have worked with the Department of Defense to procure secure phones. In other moves to protect its communications and computers, Union Pacific has removed sensitive information from websites; instituted password protection for access to hazmat, military, and spent nuclear fuel shipment tracking and emergency response information; required that passwords be routinely changed; changed all user ID’s; and deleted inactive user ID’s. The railroad has also implemented encryption technology for selected data communications and has increased physical security and restricted access to communication, computer, and dispatching centers.

Yet while government and the railroads have concentrated on identifying and remedying weak points, the threat remains undefined. It might be relatively simple to derail a freight train carrying hazardous materials in a downtown tunnel. However, while single lines are vulnerable to disruption of their traffic or even destruction of key points, the U.S. rail network as a whole is remarkably robust.

“Many minor incidents created on a railroad system” could “interrupt traffic,” stated the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection in 1997.28

However, the experience of the industry indicates that it can respond quickly to physical disruption to the system (except in the case of loss of a major structure such as a large bridge) and continue services on alternate lines while reconstructing the damage area quickly and efficiently. The extent of damage already experienced by the railroad industry during some major natural disasters is probably as great or greater than that to be expected from a terrorist attack. Since the railroads have continued service during disasters and have rapidly restored service on the damaged parts of the system, the same response should be expected in the case of terrorist attacks.

It would take a simultaneous attack on a very large number of sections of track or a smaller number of switching yards to have a major impact on rail service.

There is a notable exception. A determined physical attack on a small number of major facilities such as bridges or central dispatching centers could lead to their destruction and delays before they could be replaced.

The report also noted that certain railroad computer systems might be vulnerable to cyber-attack, but added that railroads had already “instituted measures to protect their operating centers.”29

Besides upgrading their security, American railroads have been improving their safety measures. “Over the last two decades the number and rate of train accidents, total deaths arising from rail operations, employee fatalities and injuries, and hazardous materials releases and deaths related to those releases all fell dramatically,” Allan Rutter, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, told a Senate subcommittee in July 2002.30

Nevertheless, there will be new disasters. Another freight train carrying hazardous materials could derail in the downtown area of a major city. Whether it results from an accident or sabotage, it could threaten human lives and disrupt commerce and communications. The next time it does happen, however, America’s cities and railroads will be better prepared.


Click on an end note number to return to the article.

1. William C. Thompson of Jacobs Engineering Group, “Railroad Infrastructure Security” presentation, Transportation Research Board, 14 January 2002.

2. Train Fire, Toxic Cargo Shut City,” Baltimore Sun, 19 July 2001.

3. Train Derailment Severs Communications,” Baltimore Sun, 20 July 2001.

4. Tunnel Fire Choking East Coast Rail Freight,” Baltimore Sun, 20 July 2001.

5. “Train Fire, Toxic Cargo Shut City.”

6. Hazardous Materials Pass Daily—And No One Knows,” Baltimore Sun, 20 July 2001.

7. U.S. Conference of Mayors, “A National Action Plan for Safety and Security in America’s Cities,” December 2001, pp. 7–8.

8. “Hazardous Materials Pass Daily—And No One Knows.”

9. Accident Plan Leaves City Unprepared,” Baltimore Sun, 26 July 2001.

10. Officials to Improve City Emergency Plan,” Baltimore Sun, 27 July 2001.

11. CSX Transportation Boosts Emergency Responder Outreach,” CSX “News and Events,” 14 June 2002.

12. BNSF Today, 28 September 2001.

13. Curt Secrest, Federal Railroad Administration, “Railroad Security Issues,” presentation to the Pennsylvania Joint Rail Freight Seminar, Philadelphia, 9 May 2002.

14. BNSF Today, 28 September 2001.

15. Alan Rutter, cited in “FRA’s Allan Rutter Addresses Delegates,” Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, 48th Regular Convention Update, August 2002.

16. Association of American Railroads, 19 September 2002 overview of the 1 February 2002 Terrorism Risk Analysis and Security Management Plan.

17. Association of American Railroads, 19 September 2002 overview of the 1 February 2002 Terrorism Risk Analysis and Security Management Plan.

18. Curt Secrest, Federal Railroad Administration, “Railroad Security Issues.”

19. Federal Railroad Administration strategic goals.

20. Adm. James Underwood, testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, 2 October, 2001.

21. Statement of the Department of Transportation on Cargo Security before the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Transportation, 21 March 2002.

22. Customs Rail Carrier Supply Chain Security Profile Questionnaire.

23. Rail Carrier Agreement to Voluntarily Participate in Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.

24. Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Security Recommendations for Rail Carriers.

25. National Transportation Technology Plan, section 8:Transportation Infrastructure Assurance.”

26. Chemical Industry Wary of Terrorism,” Salt Lake Tribune, 15 October 2002.

27. Louis J. Wagner, Association of American Railroads “Seminar on Site Security, Distribution Security, Customer Awareness and Risk Communications,” 6 December 2001.

28. Basic Characteristics of Freight Rail Transportation in the United States,” Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, 1997, p. 17.

29. Ibid., p. 20.

30. Allan Rutter, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, 10 July 2002.