August 3, 2013

U.S. railroads get emergency safety order

Also Friday, Maine U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud introduces a bill that would effectively ban the practice of one-person crews on freight trains.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Freight trains

Should freight trains be required to have two-person crews?

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A derailed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train displays a "remote control" sign Wednesday in Brownville. Trains carrying a single engineer must display the sign and they sometimes are operated by remote control.

Tom Bell / Staff Writer

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Rail cars remain strewn about the crash site July 16 where a train derailed and caught fire on July 6 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The Associated Press

Shortly before the train ran away, local fire crews responded to a fire on one of its locomotives when it was seven miles outside of Lac-Megantic. After the fire was put out, two railroad employees arrived on the scene. The firefighters left soon after the railroad workers said the situation was under control. Michaud's bill, the Safe Freight Act, would require a minimum of two-person crews for all freight trains.

In a statement, he said it's common sense that it would be better to have two crew members on a train rather than one.

"Trains can be a mile or more long and carry volatile shipments such as ethanol and oil," said Michaud, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and also on a subcommittee that focuses on rail issues.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is co-sponsoring the bill. In the last few weeks, the two Maine Democrats have met with the heads of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Although the July 6 accident isn't being blamed on the practice of having a one-man crew, its use has come under scrutiny since then.

The Canadian government on July 23 issued an emergency order requiring that trains operating in Canada and carrying hazardous cargo have two crew members.

The use of one-person crews is uncommon in the United States, according to a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Of the six privately owned freight railroads in Maine, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is the only one that uses one-man crews. The railroad has been doing so for several years.

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railroad and president of its parent company, Chicago-based Rail World Inc., was among the first railroad operators in the United States to advocate for one-man crews, a money-saving measure made possible by the use of remote-control technology.

When an engineer leaves a train to uncouple cars, for example, he uses remote control technology to control a train's movements.

Two national unions representing rail workers issued statements Friday in support of Michaud's bill.

The Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation International Association and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said the legislation reflects heightened concerns over crew size arising from the July 6 derailment.

Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, called on the House to take up the bill and hold hearings at its earliest opportunity because the use of one-person crews puts the public at risk.

Pingree said the legislation is a first step in ensuring rail safety.

"Having only one person on board who is responsible for a train's safe operation simply allows too much room for errors to go uncorrected," she said in a statement.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at tbell@pressherald.com.

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Today's poll: Freight trains

Should freight trains be required to have two-person crews?

Yes

No

View Results