Our freight railroads need more oversight. A lot more oversight.

Wreckage, debris and smoke still lingered days after the April 15 train derailment in Rockwood, near Moosehead Lake. The company responsible, Canadian Pacific Kansas City, uniformly stonewalled questions. Photo courtesy of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission

As outlined in sobering detail by an investigation published by this newspaper Sunday, the privately owned freight railroads responsible for most of Maine’s train traffic are responsible for policing themselves (“Freight railroads police themselves and inspect their own tracks. Some say a disaster is inevitable,” Oct. 8).

This means that, at any given time, the state knows little to nothing about the tracks and what is being transported on them, and is entitled to little to no information. These railroads conduct their own inspections and later file their own findings to their sole regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration.

How good or bad are these companies at faithfully carrying out inspections? Over the past six years in Maine, this group failed to report three derailments (two by trains carrying hazardous material), two accidents and three injured workers. This is unacceptable – and it may not even be an exhaustive list.

To make matters worse for the people of Maine, the little information on train contents and train accidents that is in circulation is withheld from the public as a result of a law, lobbied for by the railroads, that was passed back in 2015.

Left with railroads running railroads, what transpires in the event of an accident is a scuffle over the minimum amount of information that, frankly, has no place in 2023.


For a good example of it, we need only cast our minds back as far as this past April, when questions regarding a train that derailed near the village of Rockwood, west of Moosehead Lake, were uniformly stonewalled by the company responsible, Canadian Pacific Kansas City.

Information on the timing of inspections? None given. Information about what was being carried by the train that ran off the rails? None given.

Circumstances that transpired after the derailment were equally galling; rail cars containing hazardous materials weren’t removed in a timely manner and when they were eventually removed, Canadian Pacific Kansas City didn’t bother to empty them of their contents, spilling 500 gallons of diesel into the soil and nearby bodies of water as a result.

Without proper maintenance, tracks deteriorate and pose deadly risks. Experts say that a conservative approach to investment in private rail tracks has led to poor standards throughout Maine, leading the Federal Railroad Administration to institute extremely low speed limits on dubious lines.

In having the Federal Railroad Administration as the only official body at which the buck stops for freight railroads, Maine is not an anomaly. Across the U.S., states have tried and failed to establish regulatory roles for themselves.

A bill carried over to the next legislative session represents a big step in the right direction. L.D. 1937, which has robust bipartisan support, seeks to reverse the most restrictive elements of the 2015 state public records law that allows the railroads to keep information from the public.

This proposal has been met with resistance by the railroads, representatives of which have said they do not believe the bill has the potential to make things any more safe. Opponents have cited concerns about national security and what it might mean to make information available to bad actors. From a business perspective, too, railroads have preferred to keep details under wraps, citing a risk of competitive harm.

The national security argument is entirely speculative. And even if the more softly made commercial argument was very robust, it would not outweigh the public’s right to know. The more we know, the more we can do to better regulate the freight tracks and trains running through our communities. It’s been abundantly clear for some time that we can do better.

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