WASHINGTON – Federal regulators have launched an inspection “blitz” of rail cars hauling crude oil from the Bakken oil fields, seven weeks after a train derailed and exploded in a town near the Maine-Quebec border, killing 47 people.

The surprise inspections are intended to ensure that the contents of the tank cars match what is listed on the trains’ paperwork. Inspectors also are collecting samples and testing the North Dakota crude — which is “lighter” and thus more flammable than other unrefined oil — to determine the “flash point” at which it will ignite, transportation officials said Thursday.

“Our big concern at the moment is that what is in the tank car is what people say is in the tank car,” said Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “There are certain requirements that they have to meet if the flash point is different from what the regulations say.”

The “Bakken blitz” began last weekend with surprise inspections along rail lines from the oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in the U.S. They had been planned since March, in response to audits that uncovered “inconsistencies” with the classification of crude oil in rail tankers, officials said.

The initiative gained urgency after the derailment July 6 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, of an unmanned runaway train owned by a Maine railway. It was Canada’s deadliest train accident in nearly 150 years and caused an estimated $200 million in damage.

Almost immediately, the intensity of the explosion and fire raised questions, given that crude oil is typically less volatile than other materials.

“That explosion in Lac-Megantic was very unusual for crude,” said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, which is doing the inspections with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Ethanol, you can see that happening. But generally speaking, most grades of crude would not be that volatile.”

The disaster has increased scrutiny of the adequacy of rail safety regulations, amid a boom in shipments of crude oil.

On Thursday morning, Quarterman and Szabo spoke to a rail safety panel that is beginning a review of potential new requirements for trains that haul hazardous materials.

Among the proposals that the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee will discuss in the coming months are new restrictions on leaving trains loaded with hazardous materials unattended, and requiring at least two crew members on trains.

A single engineer was responsible for operating and securing the train that derailed in Quebec. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose train crashed, has since filed for bankruptcy protection.

Szabo said 2012 was the safest year in railroad history in the U.S. “by virtually all measures.” He noted that the number of train accidents has declined by 43 percent over the past decade.

“But when lives are lost, when families are broken, when a town is nearly wiped out, this is a reminder that our job, when it comes to safety, is never done,” Szabo said.

The most contentious issue being discussed by the advisory committee — composed of representatives from industry, labor unions and safety groups — is whether trains with hazardous materials should be required to have at least two crew members.

Large railroads have historically negotiated minimum crew requirements as part of collective bargaining with the unions. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic is among the few railroads in the U.S. and Canada that started using one-person crews to save money.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is still investigating in Quebec. Soon after the derailment, Transport Canada issued a temporary emergency order prohibiting one-man crews.

Luc Bourdon, director general of Transport Canada’s rail division, said his agency has begun a study to examine the crew issue.

“Was (crew size) a contributing factor? We don’t know,” he said. “But in the meantime, we want to revise everything.”

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train was parked unattended about 7 miles from downtown Lac-Megantic late in the evening on July 5. The engineer apparently left one of the locomotives running to power the air brakes, and set an as-yet-undisclosed number of hand brakes on rail cars as backup before he went into town for the night.

But the locomotive apparently was shut down by firefighters who were called to extinguish a fire in the engine, eventually leading to the failure of the air brakes.

Questions remain about what happened after firefighters reported their actions to railway employees.

Before dawn on July 6, the unmanned train rolled downhill into Lac-Megantic. Witnesses estimate that the nearly mile-long train was going as fast as 60 mph — in a 10 mph zone — when it reached town and jumped the tracks.

Thursday’s committee discussion showed that the railroads and labor unions are on different tracks regarding minimum crew size. A union representative suggested again Thursday that the single engineer couldn’t have completed all of the safety steps needed to properly secure the train outside Lac-Megantic.

The Federal Railroad Administration has made clear that is believes safety is “enhanced” with a two-person crew. Szabo, a former union official, said he would prefer to address the issue through the collaborative advisory committee process, but his agency has the authority to address crew size.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com