August 25, 2013

Washington Notebook: Diverse group will dissect Quebec railroad disaster for safety ideas

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - Representatives of federal agencies and the railroad industry will gather in Washington this week to discuss rail safety in the aftermath of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train derailment that killed dozens last month in Quebec.

click image to enlarge

Workers comb through debris July 9, three days after a runaway train derailed, causing explosions, fire and destoying parts of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The Associated Press

The July 6 accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec -- and what regulatory steps should be taken to prevent another such tragedy -- will be the sole topic of an emergency meeting on Thursday of the Federal Railroad Administration's Railroad Safety Advisory Committee.

The Quebec disaster is also expected to come up at a separate public meeting being held by the railroad administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on Wednesday.

Created in 1996, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee is an attempt by the Federal Railroad Administration to develop safety standards collaboratively, "with all segments of the rail community working together to fashion mutually satisfactory solutions." The committee's 54 voting members represent federal regulators, labor unions, railroads large and small, and the industries whose potentially deadly products move via train.

Such a regulation-by-consensus approach is, not surprisingly, more popular with regulated industries than directives simply handed down by the government. But critics contend that the consensus approach can be too slow or inadequate to respond to safety issues opposed by the rail industry.

It is safe to say the committee has never been called together to respond to a disaster of Lac-Megantic's magnitude, however.

The driverless crude oil train that barreled into Lac-Megantic that morning -- derailing and igniting a massive fire that took days to extinguish -- killed 47 people and incinerated dozens of downtown buildings. It was the deadliest North America rail disaster in decades.

Federal Railroad Administration officials are expected to brief advisory committee members on the preliminary findings of the Canadian investigation into the Quebec disaster.

Officials have also directed committee members to come prepared to discuss two key topics, the first being the recent requirement from Transport Canada -- the FRA's northern equivalent -- requiring at least two crew members on all trains.

Earlier this month, FRA officials strongly recommended two-person crews on U.S. trains but stopped short of requiring them. Yet the agency's top administer reprimanded the head of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic this past week for continuing to operate trains with a single crew member after the deadly derailment, and the agency made clear in its communication to advisory committee members that it plans to continue to pursue the issue.

"FRA believes that initiatives to require a minimum of two crew members for over-the-road trains (including both passenger and freight trains) could enhance safety," reads the communication. "FRA expects to discuss formulating a task statement about appropriate train crew size for an RSAC working group to consider."

The other major topic will be the railroad administration's recent instructions prohibiting railroads from leaving trains carrying certain types of hazardous materials unattended. MMA's train had been left unattended overnight.

Observers shouldn't expect any definitive policies to emerge from this week's meeting, however.

Robert Kulat, an FRA spokesman, said the advisory committee may refer some of those issues to working groups that will, in turn, issue recommendations to the FRA. The agency can then decide whether to initiate federal rule-making, a process that takes months or years to complete.

POLL GIVES COLLINS HIGH MARKS

Apparently even "green" voters in more liberal southern Maine seem to approve of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, according to a poll by a conservation group.

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