- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

PAULSBORO, N.J. (AP) — A U.S. senator from New Jersey is calling for tougher penalties for railroads that violate safety rules, among other changes he’s proposing to try to prevent accidents involving hazardous materials.

Democrat Robert Menendez said Thursday that his plan is in response to a National Transportation Safety Board report last month that found systemic problems involved in the November 2012 derailment of a train in Paulsboro.

One derailed car leaked vinyl chloride, leading to the evacuation of people living nearby. Exposure to high levels of the gas has been linked to dizziness, breathing problems and even death.

The NTSB faulted train operator Conrail for continuing to open and close a swinging bridge where the train derailed despite repeated problems. The agency also said the train operator did not promptly share detailed information with local emergency responders.

Menendez’s plan calls for harsher penalties for railroads that violate safety standards, requiring railroads to provide hazardous materials information to local emergency management officials, establishing new safety procedures for railroad workers when signal lights are red, improving risk-assessment tools for railroads and educating communities about hazardous materials passing through on trains.

Collectively, his changes would take away some of the self-regulation now afforded to the railroad industry.

“Paulsboro is an example that it’s not good enough,” Menendez said. “It just cannot be the cost of doing business, that you have an occasional derailment.”

He said he may try to get his proposals included in a federal transportation bill.

In a statement, Conrail did not address the senator’s specific proposals but said it shares his safety concerns.

“Conrail remains committed to the safe operation of our railroad for our neighboring communities, our employees and our customers,” the company said.