WASHINGTON — Federal regulators have launched an inspection “blitz” of rail cars hauling crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in response to concerns about the inferno caused by last month’s deadly train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The purpose of the inspections is to make sure that the contents of the tank cars match what is listed on the train’s paperwork or manifests. Inspectors are collecting samples and testing the North Dakota crude — which is “lighter” and therefore more flammable than other unrefined oil — to determine the “flash point” at which ignition will occur, transportation officials said Thursday.

“Our big concern at the moment is that what is in the tank car is what people say is in the tank car,” said Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “There are certain requirements that they have to meet if the flash point is different from what the regulations say.”

The “Bakken blitz” inspections began last weekend, seven weeks after 47 people were killed in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic by an unmanned runaway train owned by a Maine railway. It was Canada’s deadliest train accident in nearly 150 years and caused an estimated $200 million in damage.

Almost immediately, questions were raised about the intensity of the explosion, given that crude oil is typically less volatile than other materials.

“That explosion in Lac-Megantic was very unusual for crude,” said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, which is conducting the inspections with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Ethanol, you can see that happening; but generally speaking, most grades of crude would not be that volatile.”

The incident has prompted additional scrutiny about the adequacy of rail safety regulations amid a boom in shipments of crude oil by rail even as the Canadian investigation continues. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which also serves industrial customers in Maine, has filed for bankruptcy since then.

Earlier Thursday morning, Quarterman and Szabo spoke to a rail safety panel beginning a post-Megantic review of potential new requirements for trains hauling hazardous materials.

Among the proposals that the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee will discuss in the coming months are new restrictions on leaving hazardous-materials trains unattended and requiring a two-person minimum crew on trains. A single engineer was responsible for operating and securing the train that derailed.

Szabo said 2012 was the safest year in railroading history in the U.S. “by virtually all measures” and pointed out that the number of train accidents has declined 43 percent over the past decade.

“But when lives are lost, when families are broken, when a town is nearly wiped out, this is a reminder that our job, when it comes to safety, is never done,” Szabo said. “It becomes our duty to take a hard look at what happened, to understand where additional risks remain in our rail network and to look for the ways that we can spare other towns from similar tragedies.”

The most contentious issue under discussion by the advisory committee — which is composed of representatives from industry, labor unions and safety groups — is whether hazardous-materials trains should be required to have at least two crew members.

Large railroads historically have negotiated minimum crew size requirements as part of collective bargaining with the unions. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic is among the few railroads in the U.S. and Canada that adopted one-person crews as a cost-saving measure.

The investigation by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, or TSB, is ongoing in Quebec. Soon after the Lac-Megantic derailment, Transport Canada issued a temporary emergency order prohibiting one-man crews. Director general of Transport Canada’s rail division, Luc Bourdon, said his agency has launched a study to examine the crew issue.

“We are going to look at everything,” Bourdon said. “Was (crew size) a contributing factor? We don’t know. TSB may determine that it was. But in the meantime, we want to revise everything.”

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train had been parked unattended on rail lines about seven miles from downtown Lac-Megantic late in the evening of July 5. The engineer apparently left one of the locomotives running to power the air brakes and set an as-yet-undisclosed number of hand brakes on rail cars as backup before he headed into town for the night.

However, the locomotive apparently was shut down by firefighters working to extinguish a fire in the engine, eventually leading to the failure of the air brakes. Questions remain about what happened after firefighters reported their actions to railway employees.

In the early morning hours of July 6 the crewless train began rolling downhill toward Lac-Megantic. Witnesses estimate that the nearly mile-long train it was traveling up to 60 mph — in a 10-mph zone — when it reached town and jumped the tracks.

It was evident from Thursday’s committee discussion that the railroads and labor unions are on different tracks when it comes to minimum crew size. A union representative suggested again Thursday that the single engineer could not complete all of the safety steps needed to properly secure the train outside of Lac-Megantic.

The Federal Railroad Administration has made clear the agency believes safety is “enhanced” with a two-person crew. Szabo, a former union official, said he would prefer to address the issue through the collaborative advisory committee process but said his agency has the authority to address crew size.

“I have confidence that the (advisory committee) will do the right thing, but we always reserve our right to promulgate a regulation any time it is necessary,” Szabo said.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
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