Norfolk Southern says it will stop hauling key chemicals on Dec. 1

Virginia firefighters learn about the DOT-105J, a type of tank car used to transport chlorine, during a training course at a CSX rail yard in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 3, 2015.
Virginia firefighters learn about the DOT-105J, a type of tank car used to transport chlorine, during a training course at a CSX rail yard in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 3, 2015. McClatchy

One of the nation’s largest railroads has notified customers that it will stop shipping key chemicals used in water treatment and agriculture on Dec. 1, the latest development in a standoff over a year-end safety deadline few railroads are expected to meet.

Norfolk Southern told customers Tuesday that it would cease hauling poisonous-by-inhalation materials a month ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline to install positive train control, a collision avoidance system Congress required in 2008.

The materials include chlorine, which is used to purify municipal water supplies, and anhydrous ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer.

The railroad, based in Norfolk, Va., also notified Amtrak and two commuter rail agencies that it will not be able to support their operations on the company’s tracks after Dec. 31. The commuter agencies are Virginia Railway Express and Chicago’s Metra.

In its notification, Norfolk Southern said it “sincerely regrets the inconvenience that customers, passengers and commuters will experience and hopes that Congress will act quickly and decisively to allow us to restore full access to our rail network.”

Congress required positive train control on railroads hauling passengers and poisonous-by-inhalation cargo after a series of fatal accidents involving both.

One of those was a January 2005 crash in Graniteville, S.C., involving two Norfolk Southern freight trains. A tank car carrying chlorine was punctured, releasing poisonous gas that killed nine people.

Railroads have collectively spent about $6 billion to meet the requirements, but all have told lawmakers that they won’t make the current deadline and have asked Congress to extend it until 2018. Otherwise, the companies say they would be forced to shut down.

Lawmakers have a couple of options to extend the deadline: attach it to stopgap highway legislation that needs to be passed by Oct. 29, include it in a bigger six-year transportation bill that could take longer to work its way through Congress or pass a separate bill just to deal with positive train control.

Several Senate Democrats, meanwhile, want to make any extension of the deadline contingent on funding for commuter railroads to meet the requirements and confirmation of key appointments in the Department of Transportation.

It’s not just passengers and chemicals that could be sidelined. Railroads transport a full range of raw materials and finished products, and shippers will have few alternatives if the trains stop moving.

“All that grain that’s supposed to go to the Pacific Northwest for export to Asia is going to sit in the elevators or on the ground,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy organization. “The new automobiles that are rolling off the assembly line in Detroit will just be sitting in the parking lot outside the factory, because freight railroads won’t be able to move them.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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