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. 

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


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