November 24, 2008
Pennsylvania leaders have an active role to play in coordinating public and private efforts to improve the safety and security of Pennsylvania's extensive and complex railroad system, according to a new study by the RAND Corporation.
The issue of rail safety and security is particularly important in Pennsylvania, which is home to more railroad companies than any other state. Pennsylvania railroads haul more than 200 million tons of freight annually though the state, including an estimated 11 million tons of hazardous materials.
Many Pennsylvania residents also rely on the railroad system for transportation. About 120 Amtrak passenger trains operate within Pennsylvania every day and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority rail passenger transit system carries more than 140 million passengers each year.
"There are a number of positive steps that Pennsylvania can take to improve the safety and security of rail," said David Ortiz, the study's lead author and an engineer with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Protecting the rail network requires a comprehensive approach with the state working in partnership with the federal government, communities and the railroads."
The RAND study was conducted for the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee as part of an effort to review existing federal and state oversight of freight and passenger rail transportation systems in Pennsylvania.
"Oversight of railroads has largely been a federal activity for over a century," Ortiz said. "Within that regulatory structure, there are many opportunities for states to play active roles in improving rail safety, both in enforcing federal safety regulations, and in assisting communities and smaller railroads."
Terrorist attacks have targeted all types of passenger rail systems worldwide. According to the RAND study, rail freight infrastructure also is vulnerable. Rail freight accidents do not typically result in widespread damage or casualties, but if hazardous materials are involved, the results could be catastrophic.
"In the post-9/11 environment, states also are gaining experience in working with the Transportation Security Administration to carry out directives," Ortiz said. "Valuable examples exist across the country that can serve as models for Pennsylvania."
Because the rail network in Pennsylvania passes through both urban and rural areas and includes many different agencies, jurisdictions and carriers, any efforts to improve safety and security will require careful coordination among first responders with widely varying capabilities, the report says. Effective emergency response will be particularly important for incidents involving a hazardous chemical spill.
The study observes that this dense rail network is an asset that could offset the effects of a large-scale disruption by offering alternative routes through the state. For this reason, the study recommends that Pennsylvania consider current funding programs, namely the Rail Freight Assistance Program and the Rail Transportation Assistance Programs, as a means to improve rail transportation, safety and security.
Providing a range of emergency response support services depending on local needs is critical, the report says. Pennsylvania could improve emergency response by coordinating exercises that include local, state and federal agencies, neighboring states, volunteer organizations and the railroads.
Additionally, the study concludes that Pennsylvania can expand state expertise in railroad safety and security by building on the existing relationship between the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration.
The study, "Improving the Safety and Security of Freight and Passenger Rail in Pennsylvania," is available at www.rand.org. Other authors of the study are Brian A. Weatherford, Michael D. Greenberg and Liisa Ecola.
The RAND study was conducted under the auspices of the Transportation, Space and Technology Program within the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division. The mission of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division is to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society's essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities.