A team from the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to arrive in Maine on Thursday to begin a comprehensive inspection of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s tracks, operations and equipment.
If inspectors find safety problems on the 275 miles of track owned by the company in Maine, they can order the company to make repairs.
The Federal Railroad Administration could give the company several weeks to make repairs, but if any problems are deemed to be emergencies, the railway could be forced to make repairs immediately or stop running, said Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail access program.
The federal review will start less than two weeks after a train carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil derailed on tracks owned by the railway and sparked an explosion and fire that authorities now say killed 50 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
The town is close to Canada’s border with western Maine, and the train was scheduled to cross the state to an Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick.
Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the railroad administration, said, “Any abnormalities or federal safety violations must be immediately addressed by the operating railroad at their own expense.”
Thompson said the rail administration spent five days in Maine just before the accident on July 6, inspecting rail lines that are used to transport crude oil.
He said unannounced inspections will continue throughout New England until late summer.
“We routinely audit railroad compliance with safety regulations and conduct unannounced inspections to ensure that tracks, equipment and operations are in safe condition,” he said.
The federal team will use a track geometry car equipped with lasers to measure the curvature and alignment of the tracks, said state and federal officials.
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said in a telephone interview Monday that the company’s 275 miles of rail lines in Maine “are in fair to good condition, but not as good as we’d like it to be.”
Burkhardt would not be more specific.
He said the federal inspection is not unusual: “They inspect us all the time.”
But he said the timing of the visit to Maine couldn’t be worse. He said the railway’s supervisors and work crews will be working on the cleanup in Lac-Megantic for days and won’t be available to meet with federal inspectors.
“It’s their call, and I’m not sure what they will find (in Maine), but it would be better if they waited,” Burkhardt said.
He said the devastation in Lac-Megantic is so great that trains cannot use that line to cross into Maine or Canada.
“We are cut off from Maine right now,” Burkhardt said.
He said the cleanup will likely take days, if not weeks.
The federal inspection of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail line was requested by Maine’s U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, who sent a letter last week asking that the federal government review Maine’s rail infrastructure and the transportation of oil through the state.
In their letter to the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pingree and Michaud noted that the route of the train that derailed in Lac-Megantic would have taken it from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota, through Maine to the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.
“An event like this requires a full accounting of the vulnerabilities of existing (railroad) infrastructure in Maine. We all have an obligation to ensure that any safety issues are identified and dealt with quickly. This is even more important at a time when crude oil shipments through Maine are skyrocketing,” Pingree and Michaud wrote.
Pingree and Michaud issued a joint statement Monday announcing that the Federal Railroad Administration will return to Maine this week to take a much closer look at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s operations. The company is based in Hermon.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald.
The federal inspection will be done in conjunction with an independent review by the Maine Department of Transportation of all freight safety records compiled by the rail administration.
The review was initiated through an executive order July 9 by Gov. Paul LePage, said Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot.
The governor told the department to look at all available safety reports and inspection results and, if necessary, recommend action to solve problems with rail lines in Maine. Talbot said the department must file a report with the governor by Oct. 9.
The unmanned 72-car train, which rolled down a seven-mile-long hill before crashing and exploding, destroyed much of Lac-Megantic’s downtown. The train was eastbound, heading toward Maine, when it derailed at 1:15 a.m. on July 6.
According to its website, the Maine, Montreal & Atlantic Railway began operating in January 2003. It owns 510 miles of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec, and employs 170 people. Its main line trains operate between Millinocket and Searsport, and from Brownville Junction to Montreal.
“Our hearts go out to the Lac-Megantic community for the tragedy that unfolded in their town on July 6,” the company says in a statement on its website. “The anguish of what has transpired in the deaths of so many is great, and words cannot express how deeply we feel for the pain and uncertainty being experienced by so many.”
In Washington, D.C., on Monday, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins of Maine paid tribute to the 30 volunteer firefighters who rushed from their homes in Chesterville, Eustis, Farmington, New Vineyard, Phillips, Strong and Rangeley to help in Lac-Megantic.
“These brave Mainers showed true strength of character, strength of character that enabled them to overcome fear in pursuit of the greater good,” King said Monday on the floor of the Senate. “It is without doubt that their actions saved countless lives, and we owe these American heroes our enduring gratitude.”
— Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: