Rail Safety and Security:

Some Actions Already Taken to Enhance Rail Security, but Risk-based Plan Needed

GAO-03-435: Published: Apr 30, 2003. Publicly Released: May 23, 2003.

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In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, concerns have been raised that the nation's shipments of hazardous materials by rail may be vulnerable to terrorist attack. Millions of tons of hazardous materials are shipped yearly across the United States. Serious incidents involving these materials have the potential to cause widespread disruption or injury. GAO was asked to examine recent steps taken by industry and government to improve the safety and security of these shipments and steps taken by local jurisdictions to prepare to respond to hazardous material rail incidents.

After the response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, industry and government took steps to improve the safety and security of hazardous material rail transportation. The railroad and chemical industries assessed their facilities' exposure to attack and developed a security plan to address their risks. The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration has begun to address non-aviation security by starting development of an overall intermodal transportation system security plan, but has not yet developed specific plans to address the security of individual surface transportation modes, including rail. Such a plan is needed to determine the adequacy of security measures already in place to protect rail shipments and identify security gaps. Officials from local jurisdictions that GAO visited, as well as other government and private sector experts, identified several unresolved issues pertaining to the safety and security of transporting hazardous materials by rail. These include the need for measures to better safeguard hazardous materials temporarily stored in rail cars while awaiting delivery to their ultimate destination and the advisability of requiring companies to notify local communities on the type and quantities of such materials stored or passing through their communities. While no standardized tool exists to gauge local preparedness, officials from nine of the ten cities that GAO visited said that they are generally prepared to respond to hazardous materials incidents. By the end of 2004, the Department of Homeland Security plans to determine the response capabilities of the nation by developing an assessment tool for use by states in performing assessments of their local communities' emergency response capabilities.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help meet the requirement to secure all modes of transportation under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security work jointly with the Secretary of Transportation to develop a risk-based plan that specifically addresses the security of the nation's rail infrastructure. This plan should build upon the railroad industry's experience with rail infrastructure and the transportation of hazardous materials and establish time frames for implementing specific security actions necessary to protect hazardous material rail shipments. Among the areas that should be addressed in developing this plan are (1) the appropriate roles of the private sector and federal, state, and local governments, (2) minimum security standards for hazardous materials stored in transit in rail cars, and (3) the appropriate level of disclosure to local communities of the types and quantities of hazardous materials passing through or stored in transit in these communities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On 3/23/04 and again on 5/5/04, DOT/FRA testified before Congress on its activities in conjunction with DHS to enhance the security of the nation's rail infrastructure and specifically the transporation of hazardous materials by rail. Their actions addressed the relative responsibilities of DHS, DOT/FRA and the private sector in overseeing rail security; the DOT requirement that all railroads conduct risk assessments and develop security plans that address the shipment and storage of hazardous materials; and joint risk assessments of hazardous material shipments by rail with a local jurisdiction intended to serve as a model for collaboration with other jurisdictions.

    Recommendation: To help meet the requirement to secure all modes of transportation under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, the Secretary of Homeland Security work jointly with the Secretary of Transportation to develop a risk-based plan that specifically addresses the security of the nation's rail infrastructure. This plan should build upon the railroad industry's experience with rail infrastructure and the transportation of hazardous materials and establish time frames for implementing specific security actions necessary to protect hazardous material rail shipments. Among the areas that should be addressed in developing this plan are (1) the appropriate roles of the private sector and federal, state, and local governments, (2) minimum security standards for hazardous materials stored in transit in rail cars, and (3) the appropriate level of disclosure to local communities of the types and quantities of hazardous materials passing through or stored in transit in these communities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2005, DHS and DOT issued the National Strategy for Transportation Security, which outlines the federal government's approach--in partnership with state and local governments and the private sector--to secure the transportation system from terrorist attacks and threats. The plan describes the policies that the Departments will use to manage the risks to the security of the transportation system, including the rail system. For each mode, the plan identifies the risks posed and risk mitigation efforts. The plan also identifies the roles and responsibilities of the federal government, state and local governments, and the private sector.

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