October 10, 2013

Review determines railroad safety ‘adequate’ in Maine

The transportation commissioner releases a report commissioned after the deadly Quebec crash.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Scrutiny of the state’s rail infrastructure follows the July 6 train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Maine’s 1,150 miles of privately owned railroad are not at risk of a deadly derailment or crash like the one in Quebec this summer, according to the state’s top transportation official.

In a six-page report to Gov. Paul LePage dated Sept. 30 but released Wednesday, Maine transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt summarized his two-month review of the state’s rail infrastructure by concluding that, “Although no form of transport is free from all risk, it appears that existing rail safety practices are adequate, and that a tragedy like Lac-Megantic will not occur in Maine if the private railroad operators follow their own safety practices and those of the (Federal Railroad Administration).”

On July 6, a Montreal Maine & Atlantic train hauling 72 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, not far from the Maine border. The crash destroyed 30 buildings, killed 47 people and spurred numerous lawsuits and calls for better rail safety both in Canada and the U.S.

Three days after the accident, LePage directed Bernhardt to conduct a review of Maine’s rail industry and deliver a report within 90 days.

“The tragedy in Lac-Megantic forced us to ask tough questions,” LePage said in a statement. “While the results of this report are encouraging, it is paramount that operators of all modes of transportation put safety first for themselves and for all Mainers.”

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train was unattended when it derailed and there have been reports that the brakes were not properly applied. The company also has come under fire for using one-person crews, which is unusual for the industry. It could be months, though, before a final determination is made by Canadian authorities.

“However, the very existence of a high-speed, unattended, runaway freight train carrying hazardous material indicated that certain railway safety practices were either not being followed or could be improved,” the report said.

In his review, Bernhardt relied largely on safety reports from the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that oversees rail safety in this country. Between January and June, there were 1,201 observations of Maine railroads by federal officials, many of them focused specifically on risks posed by the increased transport of crude oil. Inspectors had examined Montreal, Maine & Atlantic tracks just days before the crash.

“During this process, defects were identified, requiring attention by the railroad operators, however, no defects were found that warranted the shutdown of any rail lines in Maine,” the report said. “Assuming the railroad companies follow established safety procedures, there was no indication from these inspections that a disaster like Lac-Megantic could occur.”

From July through September, there were an additional 581 observations conducted. As was the case before the accidents, defects to existing tracks were identified but none required any shutdowns.

Despite the appearance of tight scrutiny of rails, a Government Accountability Office report released in June concluded that the Federal Railroad Administration had a small number of inspectors relative to the volume of railroad tracks. The report said the rail companies themselves often become the primary guarantors of safety.

Bernhardt said the state, which has no direct oversight over rails, will continue to work with federal authorities to improve safety in the wake of the July accident.

In late August, a federal panel heard concerns about rail safety from industry experts. One of the top concerns was not the condition of tracks, but fatigue of crew members. The Federal Railroad Administration will continue gathering information and discuss future regulatory changes. Already, companies that transport crude oil have voluntarily adopted tougher safety standards.

There are five companies in Maine that own tracks and move freight and passengers. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, however, has begun bankruptcy proceedings in the wake of the Lac-Megantic crash. The company has essentially ceased all operations and is trying to sell its assets.

In his statement Wednesday, Gov. LePage said he believes that the rail industry will emerge safer and stronger going forward.

“I continue to be optimistic about the steady growth of this industry, which provides good jobs and contributes to the state’s economy,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:erussell@pressherald.comTwitter: @PPHEricRussell
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