Friday, May 30, 2008

Ballistic Protection for Railcars

In an blog earlier this week (see: "Comments on Rail Security and Safety Rules – 5-23-08") I noted that the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors comments about ballistic protection for PIH Railcars deserved a separate blog entry. Then I read the news report out of Lyman, SC about a 13-mile long hazmat spill. I knew that the time was right for this entry.

The Board of Supervisor’s comment on the PIH Tank Car Proposed Rule stated that:

  • "The new steel should also be more resistant to ballistic penetration, not just to collision-type damage. We hope this will be the case. If ballistics have not been included in the technology of the new steel, we request this be added as a requirement."

The current rule is more of a safety rule than an anti-terrorism rule. It looks to prevent the catastrophic release of TIH chemicals in a derailment type situation. While it is certainly possible for a terrorist attack to be initiated with an attack on the rail line itself, there are many other modes of attack that allow more control to a terrorist; bombs attached to the target rail car or ballistic attack are the simplest.

Ballistic Attack on TIH Railcars

A ballistic attack is the use of a projectile weapon to pierce the shell of the rail car, allowing a non-catastrophic release of the chemicals within. It would be a non-catastrophic release because the chemical would be ‘leaking’ from the penetration hole over a relatively long period of time. Technically this could be done by a weapon ranging from a handgun to tank main gun round.

I have not seen any published studies on what weapons would be able to penetrate the shell of a PIH tank car. I think that we can safely rule out most handguns as lacking the combination of bullet weight and speed at more than point-blank range to penetrate that shell. There is, however, a wide range of rifles that could be expected to provide that capability at a tactically reasonable standoff range, especially if military grade armor piercing ammunition was used.

There are also a large number of old-style, crew-served anti-tank rifles of such a large caliber that they could undoubtedly penetrate the PIH tank car shell. Most of these ballistic weapons dating back to the early 1940s should be able to penetrate that shell on both entry and exit. These weapons are widely available on the international arms market. Their use in the United States is less likely because of the need to smuggle those weapons into this country and the attention they would cause during set-up and use.

Ballistic Attack Scenario

A terrorist executing this type of attack would probably select a position overlooking a rail line entering a major urban center. A room within a couple of hundred yards of the rail line with an unobstructed views of few hundred yards of that line. A two man team, the spotter and the shooter, would be set up in that room.

As a freight train approached the spotter would watch for the hazmat placards on the tank cars indicating that the car contained a TIH chemical. As the identified railcar entered the kill zone, the shooter would attempt to place a round into the front half of the car; a shot nearly perpendicular to the shell would have the highest probability of penetrating the shell. Depending on the weapon used two shots might be fired at that rail car. If there were multiple cars closely spaced on the same train, the team might risk capture by firing on multiple cars.

The crew in the locomotive pulling the train would be totally unaware of a successful attack. The train would continue through the urban area leaking a pressurized stream of toxic chemicals. Deaths would be relatively rare. There would certainly be injuries related to exposure and the side effects of that exposure (automotive and industrial accidents). The train may be able to transit even a large urban area before authorities are able to analyze the various reports and determine that they are all related to a passing freight train. Just look at the news story mentioned in my opening paragraph.

The terror effect of such an attack would be based on the fear of chemicals and the ease with which the attack could be repeated across the country. No urban area would be seen as safe and people would start to avoid areas associated with passing freight trains.

Ballistic Protection of TIH Railcars

The proposal to include ballistic protection requested by Contra Costa Board of Supervisors might limit the number of weapons that would be capable of a successful attack. Tank cars would never be able to be armored enough to prevent such an attack. The military and their supporting arms makers have had a number of years to develop the anti-armor capability of a wide range of rifles.

The proposed heavier bodied railcars would almost certainly provide more ballistic protection than the current cars. It is unclear if the increase protection would significantly reduce the number of weapons that could be used in a successful attack. Testing could be done, but the resulting data should be closely held. There is no need to provide potential terrorists with the information necessary to choose an effective weapon.

Alternative Protective Measures

Attacks of this sort are so easy to execute that it may not be possible to completely protect against them. There are a number of things that could be done to prevent or mitigate the effects of such an attack. The seemingly the easiest thing to do would be to route these cars around urban areas, removing the target; this is currently under vigorous debate (see: "Blog Comment – Railroad Hazmat Route Selection Rule").

Removing the identifying placards would make it harder to select the appropriate target. Emergency responders resist this because they rely on those placards to appraise them of the hazards they are dealing with. Without these placards on rail tank cars, first responders would not be able to approach freight train derailments and accidents without first communicating with the appropriate railroad officials and getting a detail cargo list for all tank cars. This would take time and cost money and potentially lives.

Putting leak detection devices on these rail cars could alert the crews to this type of attack, but what would they do with this type of information? Stopping the train would allow emergency responders to plug the leak and issue evacuation or shelter in place warnings for a limited area. Selecting the proper stopping point could be critical. A leaking chlorine car passing a hospital would provide little real risk to the patients; stopping one next to the same hospital would greatly increase the risk. Safe haven stopping areas would have to be clearly identified to train crews.


The comments from the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors have opened up an interesting area for discussion. DHS and local first responders need tobegin to consider the implications of such an attack.

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