A fiery train disaster was narrowly averted early Sunday near a small town in Iowa. Someone was very determined to derail a train carrying highly flammable ethanol, according to the CEO of Iowa Interstate Railroad.
Journals found in Osama bin Laden's compound after he was killed contained evidence of al Qaeda's desire to target trains and subways in the United States. The FBI is now investigating the Iowa incident, but Bureau sources said early indications are that the incident is not a terrorism related.
"Someone could have been killed," Dennis Miller, the CEO of Iowa Interstate Railroad, told ABC News. "Ethanol won't explode," he said, "but it will burn." The trains running along those tracks, he said, often carry flammable ethanol, which they load at a nearby ethanol plant. Each train can carry up to 30,000 gallons of ethanol, "and 30,000 gallons would burn for a long time."
Miller said a lock was cut off a track switch box just outside Menlo, a town that sits along the rail line between Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. The track was also "gapped open" about 2 inches, and a black bag was used to cover the switch signal so the tampering would be harder to notice. Miller said the switch tampering, and the creation of the gap in the tracks, clearly indicated to him that someone was trying to derail one of the 130-car trains that were running the track last Sunday.
The railroad's chief operating officer, Mick Burkart, said a Union Pacific train did successfully cross the track at the damaged switch Sunday night, but the crew noticed that something was wrong with the track and switch. They reported it to the Iowa railroad, and all traffic was shut down on the track.
Burkhart said that alert crew probably saved lives. He said at some point that night that a train coming through that area at 40 mph would have been derailed, and there would have likely been an ethanol fire. If that happened, he said, "it could have been a real disaster," with the loss of life of train crew workers, and people in the town of Menlo.
On Capitol Hill today, Amtrak Chief of Police John O'Connor announced it is expanding its comprehensive rail security efforts to provide increased right of way protection to detect and deter terrorists seeking to derail passenger trains.
O'Connor said threats against rail transportation are very real and "[t]he recent events after the death of bin Laden serve as a stark reminder that these threats continue to be viable." He emphasized the the terrorists' interest in derailing trains is of particular worry to Amtrak, which "operates high-speed rail trains where catastrophic losses could occur."
Amtrak said the additional security countermeasures would focus first on passenger trains, particularly those operating on the Amtrak-owned Northeast corridor. Amtrak said it already had security in place, which were focused on the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in a station or on a train, or on an active shooter scenario.
Protecting stations is difficult, but protecting thousands of miles of train track is even more challenging, O'Connor said. Historically, Amtrak has used a range of security strategies, such as high security fencing, bollards, blast curtains, access control and technologically driven initiatives to protect stations, bridges and tunnels. Amtrak is exploring the expanded use of these strategies for right of way protection.
Since the U.S. raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, Amtrak has bolstered track security actions, expanded patrols and reinforced employee awareness programs, O'Connor said.
The incident in Iowa showed just how terrorists could sabotage a train. The CEO of Iowa Interstate Railroad said it was an alert train crew that prevented a potentially disastrous derailment.
"The crew did an excellent job," Miller said. "We are kind of surprised something like this would happen, and now we are just waiting to see what the FBI finds."