August 29, 2013

Rail fears: Fatigue, crew size, retrofitting

In the wake of the deadly Quebec derailment, a federal panel hears concerns on railroad safety.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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A Pan Am Railways freight train moves through the Riverton neighborhood of Portland, bearing a red placard that indicates it is carrying crude oil. A federal hearing Wednesday was intended to give interest groups and the public a chance to comment generally on the transportation of hazardous materials via rail.

2013 Press Herald file

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She said no tank car will likely ever be impervious to rupture, given the "substantial forces" at play in major rail accidents.

"The fact that some (DOT-111) tank cars have not survived in some major derailments is not an indication that they are inherently flawed," said Cherry Burke, who oversees global transportation safety and risk management for Dow. "The significant increase in the number of shipments of certain commodities making it more likely that these cars will be involved in a derailment also does not make the tank car design itself inherently flawed. The first line of defense is preventing the accident."

Canadian officials are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the runaway train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border.

Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer -- the sole crew member -- did not set enough hand brakes on the tanker cars before he left the train unattended for the night.

Those hand brakes apparently failed to hold the train after the locomotive's air brakes shut down as firefighters extinguished a fire in the engine.

More details about the derailment could emerge Thursday when transportation officials update the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee on the preliminary investigation in Canada.

The committee -- with 54 members representing federal regulators, railroads, unions and industries that depend on rail -- will also discuss the Federal Railroad Administration's emergency order issued weeks after the crash in Quebec.

Specifically, the administration prohibited railroads from leaving trains unattended if they are carrying certain hazardous materials, unless the companies first get approval from the administration.

The committee is also expected to discuss the issue of one-person versus two-person crews.

Minimum crew levels are typically set during the collective-bargaining process between railroads and unions, not by regulators. But the Federal Railroad Administration said recently that a minimum crew of two people would "enhance safety."

In a terse but strongly worded letter to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic officials, FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote recently that he was "shocked" that the railway continued to operate trains with one crew member after the Quebec derailment.

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

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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