Federal officials inspected Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s lines in Maine days before the deadly train derailment July 6 just across the Canadian border, but have refused to release any information about what they found.
At the urging of Maine’s two U.S. representatives, Federal Railroad Administration inspectors will return this week to take a closer look at the railway’s roughly 275 miles of lines in Maine.
Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud were unaware of the previous inspection, their spokesmen said Tuesday, and neither had requested or seen a report from it.
When asked whether they think the report should be released immediately, Michaud and Pingree said they will ask about the report when they meet with railroad administration officials Thursday in Washington.
“We’ve passed along the request to make inspection reports public and have been assured that they will be responsive to requests for information,” Michaud’s spokesman, Ed Gilman, said in an email.
Michaud serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.
Michaud and Pingree said they support another inspection of the rail lines.
“We asked for inspections of not just the tracks, but the tank cars and all the other parts that make up the infrastructure,” said Willy Ritch, Pingree’s spokesman. “We want to see the results of those inspections to see whether they match up with concerns that have been raised about tank cars and about whether the tracks are suitable.”
Gilman said Michaud’s request was for an inspection that’s more comprehensive than the periodic inspections done by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Kevin Thompson, the administration’s spokesman, would not answer general questions Tuesday about how this week’s inspection will be done or what investigators will try to learn. He turned down a request to allow a Portland Press Herald reporter to observe the inspection.
Asked what will happen if the inspection turns up anything of concern, Thompson said “any abnormalities or federal safety violations must be immediately addressed by the operating railroad at their own expense.”
Thompson would not comment on the inspection of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic tracks that was done in late June and early July.
Asked whether a report from that inspection exists, he said the information could be obtained only through a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which gives the public access to information from the federal government.
The Press Herald submitted a request Tuesday for all 2013 inspection reports involving railroad lines in Maine, but did not receive an immediate response. By law, federal agencies must respond to such requests within 20 days.
So far, the investigation of the derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has focused mostly on the engineer who was responsible for applying brakes to secure the train before he left it unattended. The train rolled downhill into the town and set off an explosion and fire, killing 50 people.
No mention has been made of the condition of the rail or whether it could have been a factor in the accident.
Because the derailment occurred in Canada, the investigation is centered there and is being done by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. The Federal Railroad Administration has no jurisdiction outside the U.S. If the accident had happened in Maine, it would have triggered an automatic, comprehensive investigation of the tracks.
The crash has put a spotlight on rail safety in general. Because the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is based in Hermon, Maine, and its lines cross the state, Michaud and Pingree sent a letter last week requesting the federal inspection of Maine’s rail infrastructure and oil transportation through the state.
The train that derailed was carrying volatile crude oil on a run that was to cross Maine en route to a refinery in New Brunswick.
In 2011, only 25,000 barrels of crude oil was carried through Maine on trains. In 2012, the total was 5.2 million barrels. In the first five months of 2013, some 3.4 million barrels of crude was carried through the state on trains.
“We believe an appropriate response to this tragedy is to gain a full and complete understanding of the existing infrastructure being used to transport crude oil and gas in Maine,” Pingree and Michaud wrote in their letter to Federal Railroad Administration officials.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Press Herald.
Gov. Paul LePage has directed the Maine Department of Transportation to do an independent review of all freight safety records compiled by the rail administration. A review by the department in 2006 showed that more than 90 percent of Maine’s 1,100 miles of railroads were not equipped to handle the weight of rail cars loaded with oil.
Danny Gilbert, president of Rail Safety Consultants in Roanoke, Va., said he is not surprised that such a catastrophic event has prompted scrutiny of the entire industry’s infrastructure.
“I would venture to say some of the reaction is going to be knee-jerk,” he said Tuesday. “Sometimes politicians come out and say, ‘We’re going to change this,’ but you really don’t change anything. The rules are there to prevent things like this.
“At the same time, though, it can be a wake-up call for any areas that might be faltering,” he said.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Chairman Ed Burkhardt has asked federal officials to hold off on the inspection in Maine until the crash investigation is complete, but Pingree and Michaud announced Monday that the railroad administration will begin its inspection Thursday.
The administration regularly conducts unannounced inspections as part of its Automated Track Inspection Program. Thompson, the spokesman, said regular inspections have helped lead to a 42 percent decrease in train derailments nationwide, with a 14 percent decrease in Maine in the last decade.
A report in June by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the railroad administration has 470 inspectors in its headquarters and regional offices, and 170 state inspectors. By comparison, the U.S. rail system consists of 760 railroads with 230,000 employees and 200,000 miles of operating track.
Because the administration is so small relative to the industry, the railroads themselves are the primary guarantors of safety, the report said.
Gilbert, who has worked in the rail industry for nearly 50 years, said he doesn’t think a lack of scrutiny by federal officials is the problem.
“Every railroad has its own safety procedures and most are pretty good,” he said. “What I’ve read about this accident is that it was a human failure.”
Burkhardt said Monday that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s tracks are in “fair to good condition, but not as good as we’d like it to be.” He did not elaborate, nor did he talk about whether the company has made infrastructure investments.
The condition and inspections of Maine’s railroads were a topic of discussion even before the derailment. In 2006, the Department of Transportation published a report that said budget constraints, decreased federal dollars and limited investment by railroad companies threatened to deteriorate the infrastructure.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Maine’s railroads a grade of C.
From 2006 through 2012, track conditions were cited as the primary cause of 10 of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s 19 derailments reported to the Federal Railroad Administration. The majority of those derailments were relatively minor incidents without spills or injuries.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: