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In a recent article regarding the tragic deaths of two AMTRAK workers the Philadelphia Inquirer described numerous lapses in safety precautions that had become the “norm” at railroad sites.
The concern regarding railroad safety extends to a broad array of potential problems and victims. Railroad workers are, of course, on the front line of potential problems, including derailments, collisions and hazardous conditions. However, the local communities through which passenger and freight trains pass will increasingly become the focus as Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey and their environs become “hubs” for the transport of oil, gas and other chemicals from their origin to points of consumption or export.
Recent events provide distressing examples of the environmental risks posed by train transport, prevented only by stringent safety measures. On May 25, an SMS Rail Line tanker car emitted a large leak of propane in Logan Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey, causing an evacuation of homes and offices within a half-mile radius, and sending at least one person to the hospital. In late 2012, a derailed Conrail car emitted thousands of gallons of dangerous vinyl chloride gas in Paulsboro, New Jersey.
There are legal remedies applicable to rail-related injuries, including the Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”), which protects injured railroad workers. The common law of negligence potentially enables residents exposed to dangerous chemicals to obtain compensation in court. Williams Cedar partner Sam Abloeser has handled many FELA cases. David Cedar acted as co-counsel representing many Paulsboro residents and first responders in connection with the 2012 Conrail derailment.
However, legal remedies can only offer partial, after-the-fact solutions. Prevention of railroad accidents must be the ultimate goal. That can only be achieved by drastic improvements in technology, infrastructure and training under the auspices of a well enforced regulatory regimen. If lawsuits help speed up those ultimate solutions, so much the better.