July 16, 2013

After Quebec disaster, railroad inspectors coming to Maine

The federal review will start less than two weeks after a train disaster in Quebec that killed 50 people and devastated an entire town.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

This photo provided by Surete du Quebec, shows wrecked oil tankers and debris from a runaway train on Monday, July 8, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. A runaway train derailed igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil early Saturday, July 6 At least 50 people were confirmed dead in a catastrophe that raised questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail instead of pipeline. (AP Photo/Surete du Quebec, The Canadian Press)

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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.

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