By Noah Rifkin
It’s another day and another crash of an Amtrak train in South Carolina. Amtrak trains move through town daily alongside freight rail carrying payloads with unknown consequences. Freight rail information is unavailable to first responders and residents, at risk. Accountability for freight rail tanker cars loaded with volatile and other toxic chemicals continue to present clear dangers.
The recent Amtrak crashes such as South Carolina involving a train load of members of Congress – demonstrate our rail systems now represent Shakespearean senses of irony. This situation is real. It represents a clear danger; for passenger rail involving more devastating consequences for freight rail carrying hazardous chemicals.
In contacting state, county, and local officials, I was stunned. The outright lack of freight information is unacceptable. No local entity maintained real-time data of local freight payloads moving through our region. First responders run blindly into potentially hazardous situations. Residents face daily invisible threats.
Some background may be helpful. I served as director of technology deployment for former U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Peña. This position provided me a unique and first view of emergent issues.
I received early insight into many emerging technology issues providing an opportunity to support changes affecting our day-to-day lives, including declassification of technologies like Global Positioning Systems.
On March 2nd, 1994 I sent a memo to Secretary Peña about awards provided by the Department of Defense’s for Dual-Use technologies. 12 of the 24 awards made during that round were awarded to USDOT. Regarding rail safety, a key technology program in 1994, was to design, develop, test, and deploy positive train control.
I was appalled when, 14 years later, I read in some of the most prominent news publications and heard network news programs referring to Positive Train Control as an emerging technology. Following the recent rail passenger tragedy in Seattle, Washington, I published an article in the Seattle Times regarding the history of rail history safety systems development. Since then, more incidents occur, ironically even with the members of Congress aboard.
As appalling as this issue is, freight rail hazards are worse. The implications for freight rail in particular to Erie and Niagara counties and our population, are frightening.
It is hopeful The Buffalo News is shedding light on this lurking hazard. The state, national and international implications are clear and compelling.
What can you do to help reduce the public hazard? Rail freight information vital to your safety needs to be available to governmental agencies and first responders. Today it is not.
Second, please contact your elected officials and all levels of government. Make people aware of the problem.
Third, and finally, do not simply let freight rail safety pass from momentary concern to long-term indifference. Both rail passenger and freight safety, continuing action is needed. Now is the time to begin.
Noah Rifkin was director of technology deployment for former U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Peña.