July 17, 2013

Railway's Maine lines inspected recently

U.S. officials won't release the results as they prepare for a more thorough look this week sparked by the deadly crash in Quebec.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Federal officials inspected Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway's lines in Maine days before the deadly train derailment July 6 just across the Canadian border, but have refused to release any information about what they found.

At the urging of Maine's two U.S. representatives, Federal Railroad Administration inspectors will return this week to take a closer look at the railway's roughly 275 miles of lines in Maine.

Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud were unaware of the previous inspection, their spokesmen said Tuesday, and neither had requested or seen a report from it.

When asked whether they think the report should be released immediately, Michaud and Pingree said they will ask about the report when they meet with railroad administration officials Thursday in Washington.

"We've passed along the request to make inspection reports public and have been assured that they will be responsive to requests for information," Michaud's spokesman, Ed Gilman, said in an email.

Michaud serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

Michaud and Pingree said they support another inspection of the rail lines.

"We asked for inspections of not just the tracks, but the tank cars and all the other parts that make up the infrastructure," said Willy Ritch, Pingree's spokesman. "We want to see the results of those inspections to see whether they match up with concerns that have been raised about tank cars and about whether the tracks are suitable."

Gilman said Michaud's request was for an inspection that's more comprehensive than the periodic inspections done by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Kevin Thompson, the administration's spokesman, would not answer general questions Tuesday about how this week's inspection will be done or what investigators will try to learn. He turned down a request to allow a Portland Press Herald reporter to observe the inspection.

Asked what will happen if the inspection turns up anything of concern, Thompson said "any abnormalities or federal safety violations must be immediately addressed by the operating railroad at their own expense."

Thompson would not comment on the inspection of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic tracks that was done in late June and early July.

Asked whether a report from that inspection exists, he said the information could be obtained only through a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which gives the public access to information from the federal government.

The Press Herald submitted a request Tuesday for all 2013 inspection reports involving railroad lines in Maine, but did not receive an immediate response. By law, federal agencies must respond to such requests within 20 days.

So far, the investigation of the derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has focused mostly on the engineer who was responsible for applying brakes to secure the train before he left it unattended. The train rolled downhill into the town and set off an explosion and fire, killing 50 people.

No mention has been made of the condition of the rail or whether it could have been a factor in the accident.

Because the derailment occurred in Canada, the investigation is centered there and is being done by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. The Federal Railroad Administration has no jurisdiction outside the U.S. If the accident had happened in Maine, it would have triggered an automatic, comprehensive investigation of the tracks.

The crash has put a spotlight on rail safety in general. Because the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is based in Hermon, Maine, and its lines cross the state, Michaud and Pingree sent a letter last week requesting the federal inspection of Maine's rail infrastructure and oil transportation through the state.

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