AUGUSTA — A rail safety review ordered by Maine Gov. Paul LePage following a fiery train derailment that claimed 47 lives north of the border in Quebec has determined that existing practices are adequate, but it didn’t address the issue of single-person crews for trains hauling oil and other hazardous materials.

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said it’s rare for railroads to use one crew member for freight trains in Maine, but he acknowledged there’s no federal rule to prevent the practice. He also said he’s not prepared to advocate for mandating the crew size.

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train with 72 oil tankers began rolling on July 6 after it was left unattended by the solo crew member who parked the train at the end of his shift. The runaway train picked up speed and derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion and fire that destroyed about 30 buildings.

Following the tragedy, just 10 miles from the Maine border, LePage ordered a safety review of the state’s 1,150 miles of rail and the operations of the state’s five freight railroads.

The report, issued Tuesday by the Maine Department of Transportation, detailed Federal Railroad Administration inspections before the Lac-Megantic disaster and stepped-up inspections that followed focusing on tracks, grade crossings and equipment, along with operating procedures and movement of hazardous materials. It also detailed best practices by Maine’s five railroads.

The scenario of a runaway train wouldn’t happen in Maine if railroads follow their own operational guidelines and rules established by federal regulators, the report concluded.

“Although no form of transportation is free from all risk, existing safety practices appear adequate,” the report said. “A tragedy like Lac-Megantic will not occur in Maine if private railroad operators follow their own safety practices and those required by the Federal Railroad Administration.”

Canadian regulators said insufficient brake force allowed the train to begin rolling, and a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic official blamed the solo operator for failing to set enough hand brakes. Investigators never indicated that an extra crew member would have prevented the July 6 disaster, but some observers expressed surprise that only one person was running the nearly mile-long train.

Canadian transportation regulators moved swiftly to mandate at least two crew members for trains hauling dangerous cargo. U.S. regulators ordered railroads to review their staffing but stopped short of mandating crew size. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, meanwhile, introduced a bill to mandate at least two crew members on freight trains.

Bernhardt said he was gratified that the report didn’t find any major problems.

As for crew size, he said the survey of best practices found that Maine railroads rarely use a single crew member to run a freight train. But he said he would recommend against mandating a larger crew for all trains because there are some circumstances where it might make sense for a railroad to use just one person.

“I personally would have some concerns if you have these large trains with a lot of hazardous materials with only a one-person crew. With that said, I don’t know if I’d ban it,” he said.


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