July 19, 2013

Maine's tracks getting lots of safety scrutiny, regulator says

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – Maine's two U.S. House members say the head of the Federal Railroad Administration told them Thursday that parking an unoccupied train overnight isn't against regulations, but it's not "standard procedure."

Joseph Szabo also told Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree that he will keep them updated about safety inspections of rail lines that are used to transport crude oil through Maine.

Michaud and Pingree met with Szabo 12 days after a runaway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train rolled downhill into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded.

At least 50 people were killed, prompting questions about events leading up to the accident and the hazards of transporting crude oil by rail.

"We'll be anxious to see what (federal inspectors) come up with as far as the Maine lines go," said Michaud. "But also, once the report comes back from Canada, we'll be looking at that report to see where some of the weaknesses might be in our regulations here in the U.S. and how we might be able to improve on that."

Pingree said Szabo told them that the Federal Railroad Administration had increased inspections of tracks in New England owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic and Massachusetts-based Pan Am Railways before the disaster in Quebec on July 6.

The administration was aware of the exponential growth in rail shipments of crude from new oil fields in North Dakota to an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, and had stepped up inspections as a result.

Pingree and Michaud requested a thorough inspection of Maine tracks after the disaster in Lac-Megantic, just 10 miles from Maine's western border. They said Thursday that Szabo promised to update them on the results of the inspection in about two weeks.

The Portland Press Herald has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all 2013 inspection reports involving railroad lines in Maine.

Asked why the railroad administration hasn't yet released such public information, Szabo told the Maine representatives that it takes time to redact proprietary and other sensitive information.

Michaud said the group also discussed safety concerns about the type of widely used tanker cars that were involved in the Quebec disaster -- cars that safety authorities in the U.S. and Canada have recommended phasing out -- and about potential modifications to federal rail laws.

Szabo also reportedly indicated that inspections of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic's lines may not have revealed anything before the derailment and explosion. That's because the incident appears to have been caused by a series of events.

Preliminary reports suggested that the locomotive's air brakes failed after the engine was shut down by firefighters who extinguished a fire. The railway's chairman has questioned whether the engineer set enough hand brakes before leaving the train and retiring for the night.

Asked about leaving a fully loaded train unattended overnight, Pingree said, Szabo replied: "There's no regulation against it, but it's not a standard practice. Most rail lines are bigger than this and have more employees than this."

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald.

 

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

kmiller@mainetoday.com

 

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