Disaster should prompt state to examine rail regs

The runaway train was like a rolling bomb on rails.

More than 70 cars, most of them tankers loaded with crude oil, barreled downhill toward the Quebec town of Lac Megantic.

Apparently, with no one aboard. 

In the middle of the night.

What followed was the kind of disaster you hope only to see in a movie starring Sandra Bullock but, in that case, she would have saved the town seconds before annihilation.

It was about 1 a.m. when the out-of-control train rolled through the town of 6,000, and some of the tanker cars jumped the track. Explosions and fire followed, destroying a large part of the downtown and taking an as-yet-undetermined number of lives. 

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, told the Bangor Daily News on Monday that the train had been properly prepared by the crew, but when firefighters put out a small fire under the engine Friday night, after the train had been prepared for the  night, the air compressor that controls the air brake was turned off, allowing the brakes to fail.

He also assured Mainers that such a crew change, where the train is allowed to be left unattended, is not permitted in the U.S.

Good thing. And now perhaps Canada will review its regulations, and agree that leaving a train with tanker cars loaded with oil or any other hazardous material unattended is not a good idea. 

It's not that the likelihood is great that something will happen, but that if it does, the results are so catastrophic precautions should be taken to guard against it. 

Not to be alarmist, but terrorists and eco-terrorists might appreciate the opportunity such unguarded access presents. And a long line of full-to-the brim oil tankers doesn't have to be moving to be used as a bomb. 

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic regularly moves crude oil from the western United States and Canada to St. John, New Brunswick, for refining. The route it takes through Maine begins at Jackman and goes the breadth of Maine.

The amount of oil moving across Maine via rail is rapidly increasing. According to Canada.com, a website curated by Canada's Financial Post, the amount of oil crossing Canada by rail has increased by 28,000 percent over the past five years.

The hydraulic fracturing process, known as "fracking," is largely responsible for the higher volume. Fracking uses water mixed with sand and chemicals which is pumped into shale, fracturing it, and allowing trapped oil and gas to move along the fractures to wells where it can be pumped out.  

So much oil through Maine on our rail lines is new to our state. But with pipeline plans hung up in a highly charged eco-political debate, long trains hauling full-bellied tankers are likely to become the norm.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation told Maine Public Broadcasting the state follows federal regulations regarding the transport of oil. The state should not simply abdicate its responsibility to the feds. MDOT and any other pertinent state agencies should be reviewing the federal regulations.

Let's use this terrible incident, which happened only miles from our border, as an opportunity to examine the federal regulations that govern the transportation of such materials through our state to make sure they do what's necessary to reduce the possibility of such a disaster here. 

Don't assume the feds have it right; in Canada they didn't. 

hmccarthy@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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Steve  Dosh's picture

Disaster should prompt state to examine rail regs

Mainers, 16:00 hst Tuesday
. .Trains are pretty darn safe when it comes right down to it and they are a far more efficient form of transportation that - anything - else . Anything . You've seen the CSX commercials where they can transport tons and tons of freight on one gallon of diesel fuel . Inertia & mass . Once you get it going it won't stop . Metal on metal ..
http://www.sunjournal.com/news/0001/11/30/trains-carry-millions-gallons-...
Accidents - u s u a l l y - happen when some ƒool tries to beat the train to the crossing .
In fact , the quintessential Maine watercolorist Andrew Wyeth lost a son that way in PA
hth /s Steve , railfan . . •

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Regulating

They all say it can't happen here. That's all well and good until it does. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what would happen in Auburn if one of those trains exploded in the middle of the town. However, in this state, in this day, it is a safe bet that no one will be looking at anything that might in any way regulate the oil and gas industry. They already own the "Veto Guy" in Augusta. I imagine he is busy at this moment thinking up a rule or legislation that would prevent even thinking about studying the problem.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

What would you have them do,

What would you have them do, ban oil tanker cars from passing through Auburn?

MARK GRAVEL's picture

I propose we get ride of the

I propose we get ride of the train all together; who needs them.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

The normal process

There was a plane that crashed in San Francisco. The normal process would be to investigate what happened and then to take steps to keep it from happening again. I think there may be some changes coming in Canada regarding the leaving of trains unattended overnight. We already don't allow that in Maine because we don't have overnight lay-overs. What if we did though? I think the normal reaction to having large trains full of explosive stuff coming through your state would be to study what regulations we do have and to assess whether or not they are sufficient to prevent this type of situation. Unfortunately the new normal in government is when there is a problem they pass a law to prevent anybody from gathering any information about it. It is easier to manipulate the truth when there is no factual data.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Why does there have to be a

Why does there have to be a "What if we did though?"
Why can't we just leave it be at "We already don't allow that in Maine".... and leave it at that?
Why must there always be a hypothetical, which almost always leads to needless hyperbole which, of course, almost always brings about more meaningless and unenforceable legislation, while never solving the problem that did not exist in the first place? Just wondering.

Bob White's picture

Mr. President

Mr. Obama you have blood on your hands pass the Keystone Pipeline

 's picture

What would be...

...your suggestion to keep what happened in Canada from happening in Auburn or anywhere along the line?

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

It is my understanding that

It is my understanding that our rail lines are more highly regulated than those in Canada. Enforce existing regulations with due diligence. We don't need new laws every time we have a problem. We need stricter enforcement of existing laws.

Bob White's picture

Mr. President

Mr. Obama you have blood on your hands pass the Keystone Pipeline

And park your train at the

And park your train at the bottom of the hill.

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