HERMON, Maine — The chairman of the freight hauler that owns the runaway train that killed at least 35 Canadians in Quebec said Monday that he wants to delay a federal agency’s inspection of his company this week.
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Chairman Ed Burkhardt said he did not appreciate the Federal Railroad Administration “piling in on top of” the Canadian agencies investigating the July 6 disaster. He said he plans to ask FRA inspectors “to please come back in a month or so when we can give them proper attention.”
“You can imagine we are absolutely swamped with questions from [several Canadian agencies] and they are asking questions about every car in the train, every locomotive, every bit of maintenance ever done to anything, and all kinds of stuff including disciplinary records” of employees, Burkhardt said Monday.
“We are trying to deal with the questions, and we recognize that they have a real need for this information,” added Burkhardt, who stopped short of saying MM&A would not cooperate with FRA. “Our safety record in the U.S. has been very good and for that matter our safety record in Canada had been very good until this horrible accident.”
Burkhardt said the railway would do the best it could to cooperate with FRA if his request is denied.
The federal agency charged with maintaining rail safety standards, FRA agreed earlier Monday to a request from U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, to inspect all aspects of the Hermon-based railway.
“Following the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, safety must be our railroads’ top priority,” Michaud said in a statement released Monday. “Over the last week the Federal Railroad Administration has been in regular contact with my office. I appreciate their willingness to inspect Maine’s rail infrastructure for any safety weaknesses. I look forward to continued collaboration with the FRA to ensure we are doing all we can to prevent another disaster from occurring.”
“With such a terrible loss of life not far from the border, I’m relieved the Federal Railroad Administration has stepped up to identify and address any safety issues here in Maine,” Pingree said. “The amount of oil being shipped through Maine by rail has skyrocketed over the last year. We owe it to the communities on those lines to make their safety a top priority.”
Michaud and Pingree did not respond to requests for comment on Burkhardt’s statements on Monday.
A statement from FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson released Monday night did not address FRA’s plans or Burkhardt’s reaction to them, but said that the inspections would add to the 4½ days within the last two weeks that FRA inspectors have examined Maine crude oil railroad routes. He did not say what the inspections revealed.
Rescue workers in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic have to date recovered the bodies of 35 people killed when a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train pulling 72 tanker cars of light crude oil derailed and exploded on July 6. Another 15 people missing are feared dead, Canadian authorities have said.
The derailment was the worst railway disaster in North America in 24 years, and occurred just 18 miles from the Maine border. Reuters reported Monday that two survivors of victims of the derailment have filed a class-action lawsuit.
Burkhardt apologized to the town of about 6,000 last week and acknowledged corporate liability. The company has said the engineer who parked the train in a nearby town uphill from Lac-Megantic likely failed to set sufficient hand brakes. The engineer, Thomas Harding, has been suspended indefinitely, Burkhardt said.
FRA inspections, Thompson said, have led to a nationwide 42 percent decrease in train derailments, and a 14 percent decrease in Maine, in the last decade. The agency’s Automated Track Inspection vehicle “will continue our inspection regime in Maine and other parts of New England,” Thompson said.
“Those inspections will be ongoing until late summer,” Thompson added. “Any abnormalities or federal safety violations must be immediately addressed by the operating railroad at their own expense.”
The FRA review follows Gov. Paul LePage issuing an executive order on July 9 directing the state’s Department of Transportation to review the safety of freight rail transportation in Maine. Democrats in the Legislature also called for a review of the state’s rail system, with an eye toward implementing measures that would improve safety standards.
In the last year, crude oil shipments through Maine have increased 15 times, from 2,000 barrels per day to nearly 30,000 barrels per day crossing into Maine by rail in March, according to Pingree and Michaud.
With its headquarters in Hermon, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway operates a freight rail line that runs through most of northern Maine and into Canada, including Searsport. The company was formed in 2003 from a defunct Bangor-based railway service and employs about 175 people. It operates 15 trains daily with a fleet of 26 locomotives, according to its website. It owns 510 miles of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec.
The timing of the FRA probe is faulty for several reasons, Burkhardt said. The railway’s operations are at a low ebb with the Lac-Megantic tracks closed. They are the company’s main line, he said.
Most company officials in a position to answer FRA questions probably are not in Hermon, he said, but in Quebec, answering questions from Canadian authorities.
Burkhardt said the probe was “by definition political” because it came at the request of Michaud and Pingree, but not unexpected.
“I will say that FRA inspects us all the time with different inspectors depending on the areas they cover,” Burkhardt said. “They are around all the time so that having more of them come is not an unusual circumstance.”
“This is what congressmen do and this is what regulators do,” he added. “The issue is timing and just being reasonable about what we can expect [our] people to do at a time like this.”
Information from BDN writer Beth Brogan and Reuters is included in this report.