Federal transportation officials are pushing ahead with plans to require at least two crew members to work on trains hauling crude oil, nine months after a fiery derailment near the Maine-Quebec border killed 47 people and raised questions about whether safety regulations have kept pace with the rapid growth in oil shipments by rail.
The Federal Railroad Administration announced plans Wednesday to propose new rules mandating two-person crews as well as new policies for securing parked trains to prevent the type of runaway train that derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec. FRA officials said they were moving forward with the rules after a rail safety working group that includes representatives of the railroads and the worker unions – two groups historically at odds on crew size – failed to reach agreement on the contentious issue.
“We believe that safety is enhanced with the use of a multiple-person crew – safety dictates that you never allow a single point of failure,” FRA Administrator Joseph C. Szabo said in a written statement. “Ensuring that trains are adequately staffed for the type of service operated is a critically important to ensure safety redundancy.”
The FRA’s announcement came on the same day that the fire chief from Rangeley told a congressional subcommittee that his department and other crews on the scene in Lac-Megantic on July 6 were under-informed and ill-equipped to combat the inferno they encountered.
Chief Tim Pellerin recounted how Canadian first-responders told him of seeing people “vaporized” by the burning crude oil that was flowing like lava through the streets of Lac-Megantic. Pellerin said fire-extinguishing foam had to be trucked to Lac-Megantic from an oil refinery that was a seven-hour-drive away in Toronto in order to suppress the fires consuming dozens of tank cars, each containing 44,000 gallons of crude oil.
“That wasn’t the plan of the rail company, that was the plan of the incident-command system,” Pellerin told members of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. “This clearly identified . . . that there were no pre-emptive plans in place to help us, to help Lac-Megantic. For the emergency management system, planning is the big piece. We need to enforce planning because to wait for the 911 call to come in, it’s way too late.”
Pellerin urged lawmakers to ensure that adequate training is provided to first-responders in both urban and rural communities. He also called on chemical companies and the railroads that ship those chemicals to improve their communications with local emergency services as well as be held accountable for their actions. “We are prepared for the residential, common everyday emergencies,” Pellerin said. “We are not prepared for a major disaster like this.”
The debate over crew size on trains has raged for decades, but reignited after the Lac-Megantic incident. A single person had been operating the 72-car train, as allowed at the time under both Canadian and U.S. rules. The results of the Canadian investigation into the incident have yet to be made public, but preliminary reports suggested that the crew member failed to set enough brakes and take other steps to secure the train before leaving it unattended overnight.
Immediately after the Lac-Megantic derailment, Canadian transportation officials issued an emergency order prohibiting single-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. Transportation officials in the U.S. had hoped that the rail safety working group would come to consensus on the issue. The group agreed on other safety recommendations, but hit an impasse on crew size.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was the only railroad operating in Maine with single-person crews at the time of last year’s incident. The other major rail hauler of crude oil through Maine, Massachusetts-based Pan Am Railways, staffed all trains with at least two people. MM&A has since gone into bankruptcy and is in the process of being purchased by a new organization.
Nate Moulton, who heads the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail division, said the FRA proposal would have no effects on Maine because MM&A as well as the other railways operating in the state are using at least two crew members on all trains. Moulton welcomed the proposed policy shift, however.
“We are supportive of all of the rules that they are putting forward,” Moulton said. “I think that it makes sense.”
Canadian authorities have completed their investigation into the Lac-Megantic incident and turned over their findings to prosecutors. The derailment was the first major incident in the United States or Canada since the oil industry began moving crude oil by rail from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to refineries on the East and West coasts, including to the Irving Oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick.
Several subsequent fiery but non-fatal derailments have intensified scrutiny of railway protocols for transporting crude oil, as well as the volatility of the lighter crude extracted from the Bakken fields.
In addition to two-person crews, the FRA plans to propose rules prohibiting freight trains – including those transporting crude oil – from being left unattended on mainline as well as some rail sidings. The proposed rules would also require locomotive cabs to be locked and their reversers to be removed or secured, according to the FRA.
Maine Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree – two Democrats who introduced legislation to require two-member crews on freight trains – applauded the FRA move Wednesday.
“Having two crew on a train carrying tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil is really the least we can do to improve safety,” Pingree said in a written statement. “This is a common-sense rule that is long overdue.”
The Association of American Railroads, the trade group representing freight railways, criticized the FRA proposal as unjustified.
“If a regulation is proposed, then the least that can be expected is that a federal agency should back it up with grounded data that justifies the (recommended) rule,” association President and CEO Edward Hamberger said in a written statement, according to The Associated Press. “To date, nothing but rhetoric and empty pronouncements have been offered to validate their claims.”
Meanwhile, federal transportation officials also came under pressure from members of Congress to finalize tougher design standards for the type of tanker car involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster and countless other rail accidents over recent decades.
Federal regulators have been working on the new standards for the DOT-111 cars for years and have pledged to complete them this year. All DOT-111 cars built since October 2011 have met higher standards, but questions remain about whether older cars will be retrofitted or phased out.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees transportation issues, and other subcommittee members pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx for a specific deadline for unveiling the new standards.
“My target date is as soon as possible,” Foxx said.
“That is a frustrating answer,” Collins replied.
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