EDITORIAL: Lower rail traffic risk

THEORY HAS IT THAT HEMLINES reveal something about the economy. If you don’t know about fashion–Where are hemlines these days?–pick your own economic indicator. And here’s a hot tip: Watch trains.

Freight trains offer a slow motion picture of economic activity because it takes a while for factories and stores to use or sell all the stuff delivered by locomotives. But why would hemlines be any better at revealing the state of the economy than observing the length, frequency and variety of freight trains rolling through Chatham and Niverville, or roaring past Germantown, Hudson and Stuyvesant?

The CSX rail line that runs across northern Columbia County is the company’s main route to Boston and the rest of New England. Trains travel both directions along the line, but a lot of what passes through the Village of Chatham headed west, away from Boston, is trash… literally, garbage on its way to someone else’s backyard.

Trains heading east haul new vehicles, building materials, endless processions of shipping containers bearing Asian corporate logos, undoubtedly full of everything from running shoes to smart phones. Mixed in are anonymous boxcars and flatcars, and strings of tank cars, some marked “Corn Syrup” or “Liquefied Petroleum Gas” and others identified by codes that shippers and emergency personnel would know.

Some of the black tank cars may be an older type designated by the federal Department of Transportation as model DOT-111. Cars of this type derailed, leaked and exploded in Quebec community last year, killing 47 people. That incident and other recent, non-lethal events involving these tank cars has increased the anxiety of some parents in the Chatham School District caused by plans to move two grades of the middle school to the high school.

On the surface of it, that seems odd, because the middle school on Woodbridge Avenue is about as close to the tracks as the high school at the nearby campus. But terrain plays a role in these concerns. The middle school sits even with the tracks, while the high school was built well below track level and the tracks curve around the school for almost 180 degrees. Add to that the barrier formed by a nearby pond and the single access road to the school and it’s easy to see why parents might be on edge.

The school district is now working on a second road from the main campus to be used in an emergency. But that road won’t prevent an accident on the tracks above the high school building.

Concerns about the tracks near the school have come up so often that one school board member said the board could offer parents a stark choice: build a new high school at another site or else accept that the railroad poses a “calculated risk.”

This peevish response does little to address a reasonable concern. Building a new school (or consolidating with a nearby district?) would take years. Meanwhile, though derailments may be statistically uncommon, tank cars jumped the tracks near Kingston in Ulster County just a few week ago on a CSX line.

The district needs a different approach and the place to start is gathering support for an initiative begun by New York’s senior US senator, Charles Schumer, who is pressing for new regulations to phase out DOT-111 tank cars and replace them with newer models less likely to leak their contents in the event of a derailment. Not only Chatham, but the Hudson, Germantown and Ichabod Crane school campuses are not far from rail lines. All of those districts, the county Board of Supervisors, our state representatives and Congressman Gibson should join forces to press for these regulations.

CSX does not necessarily own the cars that make up its freight trains, but it does own and maintain the tracks. Has anyone contacted the railroad and asked to meet with a representative of the company? The Village of Chatham recently developed a good working relationship with the railroad. Perhaps members of the school community would like to talk with company officials to air their fears, learn about CSX policies and discuss options for preventing worse case scenarios.

Watch the freight trains. There are more of them now. Maybe they signal an improving economy or maybe businesses are shifting to rail because it’s more efficient. Either way, the risk grows as rail traffic increases. Chatham and the other districts near rail lines need to improve their odds by taking practical steps now. What’s the harm in trying? Why is it taking so long to get started?

Comments are closed.