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State to Beef Up Monitoring of Hazardous Materials Shipped by Rail

Recent train derailments have raised concerns about the safety of shipping hazardous materials by rail, and now the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is stepping up efforts to improve response times when emergencies do occur.

PEMA announced Monday that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding with CSX Transportation, a company which maintains and operates nearly 2,000 miles of railroad track in Pennsylvania.

Cory Angell, press secretary for PEMA, said the agreement will give the agency access to CSX’s computer systems, so they can monitor the movement of hazardous materials across the state.

Angell said previously PEMA was able to track where trains were located, but not what was in the cars.

“We may get a report up that says four rail cars derailed, but then not know exactly what the substance is that’s in the cars,” Angell said.

Angell said this information will help the agency respond more quickly and efficiently to train derailments.

“We were pretty good on the preparedness side, but on the response side, nothing can replace getting access to information that’s near real-time when you have an incident,” Angell said.

As part of the three-year agreement, CSX will train PEMA staff on their computer systems. Angell said CSX has been very cooperative, and that the agency is pleased with the final agreement.

“We think it’s good corporate citizenship, certainly,” Angell said. “It’s nothing they had to do. I think they thought it was the right thing to do, and they’re the ones who will be training our people on their systems, so they certainly are going out of their way and we appreciate it.”

Angell said he’s not sure what proportion of hazardous material moving through the state is actually shipped by CSX, but he said the agreement is “a good start” to improving safety and response times. He said PEMA plans to pursue a similar agreement with the rail shipping company Norfolk Southern in the near future.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.