WASHINGTON – A federal panel heard comments Wednesday on the adequacy of safety regulations for railroads, during the first of two meetings that will focus on last month’s deadly train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Fatigue is the top safety concern among train crew members, said a representative of one of the major unions for railroad workers.

James Stem, national legislative director with the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation union, also questioned whether a one-person crew — like the one responsible for securing the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train that destroyed part of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people — can do all of the duties required to safely operate trains that haul hazardous materials.

“One person cannot be sitting on a locomotive monitoring the brake equipment while they make a visual inspection of the train,” Stem told representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “One person cannot properly secure a train to be left unattended. So single-person operation is also a major issue.”

Wednesday’s meeting and a session Tuesday were scheduled before the disaster July 6 in Lac-Megantic. Both were intended to give interest groups and the public a chance to comment generally on rail transportation of hazardous materials. The derailment and explosion added urgency to the discussion.

On Thursday, more than 50 members of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee will convene in Washington to discuss the accident in Lac-Megantic, several safety directives issued after the derailment, and the potential need for more regulatory changes.

Railroads have already started making changes ordered by the Federal Railroad Administration on Aug. 2, said Sarah Yurasko, regulatory counsel for the Association of American Railroads, which represents most major rail companies. Railroads also have voluntarily adopted tougher safety standards for carrying crude oil.

“Today, crude and ethanol along with other flammable and combustible liquids now receive the industry’s recommended special-handling procedures already in use for the safe movement of certain hazardous materials,” Yurasko said.

But Karen Darch, mayor of the Village of Barrington in Illinois, strongly criticized the rail industry and federal regulators for failing to retrofit tens of thousands of rail tanker cars that have raised safety concerns for more than two decades.

DOT-111 tanker cars were involved in the crash in Lac-Megantic and in a derailment in Rockford, Ill., in 2009 that killed one person.

Beginning in October 2011, new DOT-111 tank cars were built to specifications believed to help prevent ruptures and leaks during accidents. But the rail and chemical industries have resisted efforts to require retrofits of the tens of thousands of older DOT-111 cars in use.

Darch, who is also president of a rail safety advocacy group called the TRAC Coalition, said that opposition shows “a willful and wanton disregard” for the communities that may face incidents during the 30-year lifespan of those existing cars.

“Such a position shows a callous and indefensible disregard for public safety, especially when you have had two-plus decades to fix the problem,” Darch said. “While there will likely be many causal factors involved in the Lac-Megantic derailment, tank cars with a propensity to rupture are quite literally at the heart of the tragedy.”

A representative for Dow Chemical, the largest bulk shipper of chemicals in the U.S., said her company supports continued improvements to tank cars within a “holistic risk management framework” that also focuses on improving operating standards, rail infrastructure and responses to prevent accidents.

She said no tank car will likely ever be impervious to rupture, given the “substantial forces” at play in major rail accidents.

“The fact that some (DOT-111) tank cars have not survived in some major derailments is not an indication that they are inherently flawed,” said Cherry Burke, who oversees global transportation safety and risk management for Dow. “The significant increase in the number of shipments of certain commodities making it more likely that these cars will be involved in a derailment also does not make the tank car design itself inherently flawed. The first line of defense is preventing the accident.”

Canadian officials are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the runaway train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border.

Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer — the sole crew member — did not set enough hand brakes on the tanker cars before he left the train unattended for the night.

Those hand brakes apparently failed to hold the train after the locomotive’s air brakes shut down as firefighters extinguished a fire in the engine.

More details about the derailment could emerge Thursday when transportation officials update the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee on the preliminary investigation in Canada.

The committee — with 54 members representing federal regulators, railroads, unions and industries that depend on rail — will also discuss the Federal Railroad Administration’s emergency order issued weeks after the crash in Quebec.

Specifically, the administration prohibited railroads from leaving trains unattended if they are carrying certain hazardous materials, unless the companies first get approval from the administration.

The committee is also expected to discuss the issue of one-person versus two-person crews.

Minimum crew levels are typically set during the collective-bargaining process between railroads and unions, not by regulators. But the Federal Railroad Administration said recently that a minimum crew of two people would “enhance safety.”

In a terse but strongly worded letter to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic officials, FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote recently that he was “shocked” that the railway continued to operate trains with one crew member after the Quebec derailment.

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

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC