Tracks run right near the home of Tavis Hasenfus’ mother, Leah Glazier, in Winthrop. He grew up with trains whooshing by his backyard. The state representative is co-sponsoring a bill to require transparency about hazardous materials that freight trains move through Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tavis Hasenfus has a long, complicated relationship with railroads.

He grew up in Winthrop where a train track snaked behind his house, through town. His childhood bedroom shook when trains passed by. He was always within earshot of their whistles.

Hasenfus loved the trains. He ran outside to watch them whoosh past. He had an electric train set. As a child, he wanted to be a railroad engineer.

He ended up as the state representative for his hometown and Readfield, where he now lives. And in that role, he started to see trains differently, especially after the February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Twenty cars in that derailment contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate and isobutylene.

Hasenfus said he’d worried about potential derailments before. “But once we saw what happened in East Palestine,” he said, “I thought, ‘Geez, this is important.’ ”


Then on March 20, a CSX train derailed near Wales, along the same tracks that run behind his mother’s house in Winthrop, near his home in Readfield and through the center of both towns.

A month later, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed near Rockwood, catching fire except for two cars carrying hazardous materials. During the cleanup, hundreds of gallons of fuel spilled.

Details were hard to come by, from either the railway company or state government. But it quickly became clear that Maine had narrowly missed a much larger disaster.

Hasenfus is now concerned for the many Mainers, including his family members, who live close to railroad tracks.

“I thought, ‘What’s going on, on the rails next to my house? If it derailed (in Wales), could it derail here? And what about all the rest of the railways in Maine?’ ” he said.

After the recent derailments, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram spent more than five months investigating Maine’s freight rail system and how it is overseen. The newspaper requested and examined years of government records; pored over thousands of pages of safety studies and reports on federal inspections, accidents and state rail infrastructure; examined regulations and chemical classifications; and spoke with more than 20 freight experts, federal safety regulators, union leaders, safety advisers and state officials.


Among our key findings:

• Eight privately owned freight railroads are responsible for the vast majority of Maine’s train traffic. Together, they own and are expected to maintain 965 of the 1,457 miles of tracks in the state. They are charged with policing themselves, conducting their own inspections and filing their own post-accident reports to the Federal Railroad Administration – the sole agency with the authority to regulate them. The FRA’s efforts to regulate railroads – and to make its presence known in the field – is hampered by its limited resources and staff.

• Railroad companies sometimes provide inconsistent or inaccurate information about the hazardous materials they are carrying. They sometimes fail to report accidents as required. The FRA has discovered that in the past six years, railroads failed to report three derailments, two accidents and three employee injuries in Maine. Two of the unreported trains that derailed carried hazardous materials.

• Maine has no oversight or authority over private freight railroads, so the state knows little about what materials – hazardous and otherwise – are traveling within its borders. The railroad companies are required to report some of the hazardous cargo that moves through Maine to the state – but only if it is being moved in large quantities. This reporting is rarely done in real time, which means that the state has no information about the hazardous materials a train may be carrying immediately available when a derailment occurs.

• Experts says Maine’s rail infrastructure is not up to par. Track defects are now the leading cause of derailments in Maine.

• Freight trains are getting longer, both nationwide and in Maine, which can add risks if there are problems with the tracks. The longer trains, which increase efficiency and profits for railroads, take longer to come to a stop and can block road crossings for long periods of time, making it difficult for emergency vehicles to get through.


• Many freight trains carrying hazardous materials derail in Maine, but most Mainers never hear about the derailments. Information about them is shielded from the public and hard to access. Mainers are not able to learn about what hazardous materials are moving on tracks near where they live because the state passed legislation in 2015 to keep this information secret.

The FRA complied with some public records requests during the newspaper’s investigation. But it did not produce all of the documents it was legally required to produce, including those about what, if any, punitive action it has taken against railroads. The agency would only answer questions on the record via email, declining to speak on the record during an hourlong conversation about its data, inspections, investigations and reports.

The Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Department of Environmental Protection answered only some questions on the record – briefly via email.

Railroads CSX and CPKC, which owns the derailed freight train in Rockwood, issued broad statements in lieu of responding to the Press Herald’s list of questions.

Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh is an expert on the freight industry who used to publish a newsletter on freight operations in Maine and New England. He believes it’s only a matter of time until there’s a dangerous derailment in Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine’s elected officials are increasingly pushing for the state to get more information in order to be better prepared for rail disasters, and members of the public are insisting on their right to know what hazardous materials travel right past their homes.

Some say it’s only a matter of time before a disastrous derailment in Maine.


“You can’t avoid the inevitability,” said Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh, an expert who for 25 years published a newsletter on freight operations in Maine and New England.


Each day, an average of three trains go off their tracks in the U.S., according to the FRA. In 2022, 1,164 derailments occurred nationwide.

Over the years, the number of derailments nationwide has dropped significantly, from 8,763 in 1978 to 2,305 in 2005.

July marked the 10th anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, one of the deadliest train crashes in modern North American history.

About 1:15 a.m. on July 6, 2013, a runaway train with no crew on board barreled at 65 mph into the center of Lac-Mégantic, a small Canadian town not far over the border from Franklin County, Maine. The train was carrying around 2 million gallons of crude oil. Explosions from the derailed tank cars killed 47 people and destroyed over 30 downtown buildings.


The cause was human error: The disaster’s chain of events began when the engineer did not apply an adequate number of handbrakes on cars before parking the train on a downward slope and leaving for the night. The crash forced the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to declare bankruptcy.

Few railroad accidents now are so severe. Deaths are rare. But many have serious consequences.

The East Palestine derailment required authorities to evacuate the immediate area and burn off hazardous chemicals that can be toxic to inhale. The cleanup continues more than seven months later, some residents have yet to move back home and health impacts are still being studied.

The derailment in Rockwood, near Moosehead Lake, two months later was far less damaging but had the potential for great risk.

Wreckage, debris and smoke still lingered days after the April 15 train derailment in Rockwood, near Moosehead Lake. Photo courtesy of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission

The train derailed on April 15 because of a washout – when water erodes the soil and other components that support the rails. Debris had built up and blocked a culvert from being able to drain water from a heavy snowmelt.

According to the FRA’s internal documents, an agency investigator determined that CPKC was at fault and had violated safety standards because it had not properly maintained the culvert “to accommodate (the) expected flow of water.” The investigator recommended that the FRA require remedial action. But the Press Herald was unable to determine whether the agency followed through because the FRA did not produce the necessary records.


CPKC repeatedly asserted that the derailment posed no threat to public safety.

But when three of its locomotives and six of its freight cars derailed, three crew members were injured and a small forest fire was ignited. Though they did not leak or burn, two of the derailed cars carried hazardous material and landed right next to cars and locomotives that caught fire. During the cleanup, at least 500 gallons of fuel and oil spilled into the soil and local waters. That prompted state agencies to inform CPKC that it was violating state law by breaking anti-pollution rules and not removing hazardous materials from the site in a timely manner.

According to the accident report, made public 90 days after the accident, the Rockwood derailment added up to $5.2 million in damaged railroad equipment. The full cost of the cleanup has not been divulged.

CPKC has not shared many details about the derailment. Local emergency responders and the state agencies overseeing the cleanup have provided some information – though gaps remain.

Three days after the derailment, the fire chief in nearby Greenville spoke of the potential for a much greater health and environmental disaster because of the hazardous chemicals.

“It was narrowly missed,” Sawyer Murray said. “We were lucky – no question.”


The three members of the train crew also dodged serious injuries, one crew member reported to the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. CPKC’s injury report said employees were taking up to 180 days off for broken fingers, sprained backs and sprained ankles.

“They’re really lucky to be alive,” Jared Cassity, the SMART-Transportation union’s chief of safety, said in April. “The locomotive is a mangled mess. The fact that they got out of there with as little injury as they did is a miracle.”


Rockwood is one of three derailments that occurred in Maine between April 12 and April 15. Maine has had 21 reported derailments since 2018 and 68 since 2008.

The Press Herald, in a search of FRA records, compiled a list of some of the most serious and potentially dangerous.

• Oct. 19, 2022: A 51-car train with 33 cars of hazardous material derailed in Lagrange because of a flood, sending nine cars – including five carrying hazmat – off the tracks. Two workers were injured – one with a sprained spine, the other with a lacerated eye.


• Jan. 10, 2022: A six-car hazmat train derailed on a slow standing track near Biddeford because of an operator error. Two liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tank cars left the tracks, one discharging gas.

• March 13, 2020: An 85-car train with 63 hazmat cars – including 10 fully loaded LPG tanks cars – derailed near Etna because of track defects.

• Feb. 15, 2019: Broken rails in Seboeis Plantation caused eight cars of an 86-car train to derail, including two of eight hazmat cars carrying high-temperature asphalt. The cost of the damage was more than $1 million. Eastern Maine Railroad Co., the train’s owner, did not file an accident report until the FRA learned about the accident four months later. The FRA issued a violation and recommended civil penalties, according to its internal documents. But the records do not disclose whether the recommendations were adopted.

• July 20, 2018: A 66-car train owned by Central Maine and Quebec Railway derailed near Jackman, sending 17 cars – four hazmat – off the track because of track defects. More than a quarter mile of track was damaged. The railroad did not report the derailment to the FRA until a federal inspector learned about it more than four months later. The inspector recommended that the FRA issue civil penalties, but it is unclear if this was done.

With 1,457 miles of private and public tracks spread across the state, many of the derailments have occurred in rural Maine. But not all.

On July 3, 2013, three days before the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a 97-car train with 56 hazmat cars derailed just a mile from downtown Bangor, sending five hazmat cars off the tracks.


The scene in Rockwood immediately after the April 15 derailment. Photo courtesy of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission


The FRA has classifications for derailment causes. They include track defects, crew operation, mechanical and electrical failure, as well as environmental impacts (like a flood, snowstorm or dense fog), track vandalism, and issues with trespassers or drivers of vehicles at railroad intersections.

Track defects historically have been the leading cause of U.S. derailments, but their share of derailments nationwide has gradually decreased as human error has taken the top spot.

According to FRA data, track defects caused 51% of U.S. derailments in 1982, 45% in 2002 and 31% in 2022. Overall, U.S. derailments from track defects fell by 59% from 2002 to 2022.

In Maine, overall derailments have gone down over time, but track defects are responsible for a growing share. They caused 45% of the 67 Maine derailments from 1993 to 2002, 56% of the 66 derailments from 2003 to 2012, and 65% of the 37 derailments from 2013 to 2022.

The rising percentage of derailments attributed to track problems is a key sign of Maine’s lagging private rail infrastructure, said railroad economist Jim Blaze, who writes extensively about railroads.


At its peak in the 1920s, Maine was home to 2,295 miles of working tracks. Many miles gradually went out of use, especially during the economic downturn of the 1980s. By 1995, Maine had lost 1,079 miles of those tracks, according to the rail-history blog American Rails.

That’s partly because railroads stopped maintaining some of their tracks since they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) foot the bill without a valuable return. Instead, they chose to operate on the tracks that remained at the slower speed limits the FRA imposes on lower-quality tracks.

If such slow service makes them lose their customers, railroads can get approval from the National Transportation Safety Board to abandon their tracks. That’s what they did in the 1980s. Eventually, the state or other railroads bought the tracks.

“The private system of the railways didn’t make any of those improvements over that 50- to 60-year period,” Blaze said.

There are many components to a track, beyond the rails, that work together to keep a train traveling safely.

Ties, the wooden slats that sit below the rails, help to absorb the force of a moving train and maintain the proper distance, known as the gauge, between two rails. They need to be replaced regularly.


The ballast is the crushed rock that aligns the ties and continues to distribute the force. It needs to be filled back in regularly.

The forces are distributed into – and further dissipated in – the ground’s subgrade and the subsoil, which also help drain water and protect the track from frost. The subgrade needs to be closely monitored and completely replaced when mud surfaces.

If those components aren’t regularly maintained, repaired or replaced, the gauge can widen and a wheel can drop between the rails – or the shock of a moving train can have nowhere to go but rails, which can break from the force, said Jonathan Shute, a former supervisor of train operations in New England who now instructs inspectors as a consultant for the FRA.

Blaze believes Maine’s tracks, which are often remote, do not get adequate maintenance. These days, the FRA considers the quality of Maine’s tracks so low that they have some of the slowest possible speed limits.

From 1988 to 2020, no Class I – or top-earning railroads – operated in Maine.

Canadian Pacific (now CPKC, after combining with Kansas City Southern) owned and ran lines throughout Maine from 1889 to 1988. It abandoned or sold off the last of its tracks (under a subsidiary) in 1994. But it returned in 2020, purchasing Central Maine and Quebec Railroad and its 201 miles of Maine track. In 2022, CSX purchased Pan Am Railways and its 531 miles of track and became the largest operator in the state.


These railroads have the funds to do major repairs, Blaze said. But he has yet to see evidence that they have – probably because they are waiting to see whether Maine is worth the investment.

CSX has “committed” to investing $100 million to improve its infrastructure and restore its tracks to “Class 1 standards” in Maine, a spokesperson said in a statement. But the railroad did not offer a timeline or examples of work done.

In the middle of this system, the Amtrak Downeaster service runs five passenger-rail roundtrips daily from Brunswick to Boston. It is managed by the state and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and paid for with state and federal funding. CSX owns 106 of the 143 miles of track the Downeaster runs on – from Brunswick to the Massachusetts border – but the rail authority pays CSX to keep the tracks well-maintained, well-inspected and steadily upgraded.

As a result, the tracks are ranked a higher grade than others in the state, and Amtrak can operate on them at high speed.

“Is there a concern of the overall health of the railroad? No,” said Patricia Quinn, the rail authority’s executive director.

The Maine Department of Transportation declined to speak on the record about the state of private rail infrastructure in Maine.


But MDOT has proposed a 20-year plan to improve public and private rail infrastructure. The aim would be to work with private railroads to make the tracks safer, more resilient and less expensive to maintain. The state agency would help facilitate the projects to improve and rehabilitate hundreds of miles of rail lines – and in some cases completely replace them. The proposed projects include ones to help private freight companies reduce traffic congestion and improve safety and reliability.

The 11 projects that have been priced so far would cost $351 million, and mostly would get underway between 2027 and 2042. The transportation department hopes to fund the projects from local, state, federal and private grants. MDOT could acquire some of that funding with a $15 million bond approved by Maine voters in 2021, helped by grants and matching federal funds.


Driven by pressure to haul more cargo at lower costs, railroads – especially the big ones – are packing more cars onto each train.

The FRA and the U.S. Government Accountability Office are investigating those safety impacts.

The Federal Railroad Administration has released two safety advisories since April about “the potential complexities associated with operating longer trains and to ensure they take appropriate measures to … ensure the safe operation of such trains.”


A GAO report last December stated that longer trains can take more time to stop because of issues with braking systems and with crew members’ ability to effectively communicate over a greater distance. The GAO raised concerns in 2019 about how longer trains, some stretching nearly 3 miles, can block traffic at road crossings and get in the way of emergency responders.

All of the seven Class I railroads operating in the U.S. voluntarily disclosed to the U.S. Government Accountability Office that in the previous 10 years their average train lengths had consistently and significantly increased.

A freight train travels through Winthrop, in the district of Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, who is co-sponsoring a bill to require transparency about hazardous materials that freight trains move throughout the state. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But it’s difficult to know how much longer trains that run through Maine are getting. The FRA does not routinely monitor trains’ lengths and number of cars. Only its accident reports contain that information – though even in those, it can be spotty or inconsistent.

Data the Bureau of Transportation Statistics collects from two key points, however, suggests the length of trains moving between Maine and Canada has nearly doubled in the past four years.

In 2019, the year before Class I railroads returned to Maine, the average length of trains crossing into Maine at Jackman or Vanceboro was 69 cars. From those two ports of entry that year, 46,268 train cars entered the state.

Since then, the numbers have soared – even during the pandemic.


In 2022, 137,194 train cars entered Maine at Jackman and Vanceboro, with an average of 139 cars per train. At Vanceboro, the average length was 157 cars.


Along the 140,000 miles of train tracks in the U.S., railroads mostly police themselves.

“The railroads, by law, are primarily charged with inspecting their own rolling stock, tracking equipment, performing daily inspections and meeting federal safety standards,” Cory Gattie, a former FRA spokesperson, said in April.

The FRA is the sole federal agency tasked with regulating and overseeing private freight companies. Individual states have so far tried unsuccessfully to carve out a role in that regulation.

The FRA is supposed to enforce rail safety regulations, administer funding and research rail improvement. Regional staff across the country are supposed to audit railroad safety, perform spot inspections, and issue violations and fines.


Maine has one FRA inspector, on MDOT’s payroll but independent from the state.

The FRA launches its own investigations into accidents that it considers severe. But it only has so much bandwidth.

“We don’t have the resources and staffing to be doing daily inspections of railroads everywhere across the country. We do not have a system set up,” Gattie said.

And railroads sometimes fail to report accidents as the agency requires.

The five unreported accidents in Maine in the past six years that the FRA discovered included three derailments.

In March 2017, a Central Maine and Quebec Railway train derailed, causing over $230,000 in damage. The FRA inspector learned about this in February 2019 and recommended the FRA issue a violation.


In July 2018, Central Maine and Quebec Railway failed to report an accident in which four of the 17 cars that derailed were carrying hazardous materials. The FRA discovered the violation in February 2019 and recommended civil penalties.

In February 2019, Eastern Maine Railway Co. failed to report an accident in which two of the cars carrying hazardous material derailed and became hot. The inspector discovered the derailment in December 2019 and recommended a civil penalty.

The FRA did not provide the Press Herald with public documents about whether the FRA moved forward with any of the inspector’s recommendations.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, also monitors railroad safety and makes recommendations, but it has no authority to mandate changes to improve safety.

Experts say railroads understand it’s beneficial to keep on top of their tracks, equipment and safety practices. “It’s in no one’s best interest to have derailments,” said Shute, the former trainmaster.

But he said he thinks he’s seen the layers of protection thin.


“It just doesn’t seem to be, to me, that the FRA has the field presence that we used to see,” Shute said. “I feel there are missed opportunities when you don’t have inspectors on the ground, because you don’t have the sense of how a railroad is operating.”

In his 25 years reporting on Maine’s railroad industry in his newsletter, Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, Hardenbergh said he never heard that any railroad had ditched self-inspections altogether.

“But they may have been operating close to the margins,” he said.  “Based on these derailment reports … more could have been done.”


In Maine, the public doesn’t get to learn what is traveling on Maine tracks. Even state officials who prepare for potential disasters don’t know much about the materials moving through by rail.

Federal law and FRA regulations require that railroads notify states if a “high-hazardous flammable train” is coming through – but that’s a narrow classification.


An HHFT is defined as a train carrying flammable liquids on at least 20 consecutive – or 35 nonconsecutive – cars. Norfolk Southern’s derailed train in East Palestine was not an HHFT. It’s unclear whether the CPKC train in Rockwood was.

The railroads say they provide information when needed to the Maine Emergency Management Agency. But MEMA spokesperson Vanessa Corson said that information is very limited and generally not in real time.

No one in the agency’s current staff has ever heard of an HHFT traveling through the state, Corson said.

Maine law requires a company moving certain types of hazardous materials in certain quantities through the state to tell MEMA the chemicals it moved in the previous year.

In those reports, she said, “the extent of information generally amounts only to diesel fuel and batteries for the locomotives.”

Some states make HHFT information public. In Oregon, for example, estimates of the number of HHFT trains moving through the state and information about what they could be carrying is published online quarterly.


In Maine, the public’s right to information about hazardous material transportation was taken away by the Legislature in 2015. Railroads successfully lobbied to keep such information secret. Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the 2015 bill. But the Legislature overrode the veto 146-1 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate.

There is a growing push from local communities and legislators to win back access to that information.

State House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, introduced an emergency bill in May, after Rockwood, that basically would reverse the 2015 state law, which shielded most derailment information from the public.

“Even though the wreckage was causing impacts on public health, because the two tankers containing hazardous materials were not actively leaking or on fire, the Maine government had no obligation to share the details of what liquid was attached to a train derailment,” Talbot Ross said at a public hearing. “We should not witness what happened in East Palestine and Rockwood and understand that only when a disaster is taking place is when the public has a right to know.”

The bill has bipartisan support. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford; Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot; Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland; and Hasenfus, D-Readfield, are co-sponsors.

The legislators want both emergency responders and the public to have a sense of what is traveling on tracks through their communities.


“If there was an alligator in your pond, it would be nice to know, so that you know, ‘OK, well, I shouldn’t go swimming,’ ” Hasenfus said. “It’s just like knowing what is on those rail lines to know, ‘If there is a derailment, I need to leave.’ ”

That bill has been tabled until the next legislative session.

In March, in the wake of the East Palestine derailment, the four U.S. senators from Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania introduced a sweeping bill called the Railway Safety Act of 2023 that would expand the list of hazardous materials that railroads are required to notify states about and the list of materials that trigger certain safety restrictions. It would also require the U.S. Department of Transportation to audit the federal inspection program and update inspection and technology regulations. It was reported out of committee but now appears to have stalled.

State Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, and his mother, Leah Glazier, stand near the tracks by Glazier’s Winthrop home as a freight train moves by. Hasenfus is co-sponsoring a bill to require transparency about hazardous materials that freight trains move through Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


When asked to divulge the materials they carry, freight railroads frequently stress such security concerns as train robberies or environmental terrorism.

Those were arguments several private railroads made against the Maine bill.


At a public hearing in May, representatives of CSX and CPKC spoke of balancing public safety concerns with national security.

CPKC’s Arielle Giordano told the Judiciary Committee there were concerns about “the possibility that such information may be obtained by an individual or group with nefarious intent and used to identify potential targets or to exploit vulnerabilities increases dramatically.”

“CPKC does not believe that L.D. 1937 does anything to further public safety,” spokesperson Patrick Waldron said in a statement to the Press Herald.

The railroads often argue that moving hazardous materials by rail also is far safer than on public roads. From 1992 to 2022, for example, trucks carrying hazardous materials killed 311 people while trains carrying hazmat killed 21. Trains are also widely regarded as relatively environmentally friendly.

Some question whether railroads are being honest about the key reasons for their objections. Blaze, Hardenbergh, Hasenfus, Bennett and Talbot Ross all suggest railroads don’t like the bill because making what they’re carrying public means sharing it with competitors, who could try to steal their business.

“It’s proprietary to the shipper as well as the railroad, and it’s competitive,” said Blaze, the railroad economist.


Hardenbergh, who beat a civil lawsuit accusing him of defaming a railroad in 2014, said this often made reporting on the industry difficult.

“Railroads were very reluctant to say what’s in the trains because they knew I was going to publish it and they didn’t want competitors to know what was in their cars,” he said.


Hasenfus wants his family, his constituents and agencies across the state to be able to quickly and effectively respond to a derailment. And he’s hopeful that this time around won’t be a repeat of 2015, when there was near-unanimous support to keep information on hazardous materials secret. He believes what they now know about the East Palestine and Rockwood derailments should compel legislators to vote for public disclosure.

But knowledge of what trains are carrying won’t change regulations governing train safety. It won’t curtail the length of trains. And it won’t, on its own, do anything to prevent derailments. And Maine has no authority to step in with railroad rules.

Bill co-sponsor Bennett said he understands that public knowledge alone can’t fix worn infrastructure and safety gaps.

But, he said, it’s better than no action at all.

“Just saying ‘trust us,’ when you can’t even affirm that there are proper protections in place is woefully insufficient in today’s world,” he said. “We’ve seen enough incidents of failure here that the public needs to be involved and they need information.”

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