WASHINGTON — A top Obama administration rail official assured Maine’s House members that the Federal Railroad Administration was ramping up inspections and going over safety protocols in light of the recent deadly Canadian train accident, during a meeting Thursday.
Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat representing Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he was pleased with the attention shown so far by Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, to Maine’s rail lines, particularly the one owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. Earlier this month, a Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic train sped, unmanned, through the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, where several cars derailed, leading to deadly explosions.
The meeting “was very good and the fact that they’ve been proactive all the way along is good,” Michaud said following the meeting. He said Szabo assured both himself and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District, who also attended the meeting, that he would fill them in on the findings of past and planned inspections of the lines every couple of weeks.
Both members said they would continue to monitor the budgeting for rail safety, which they see as a critical part of ensuring Maine doesn’t experience a similar tragedy.
“The big concern that we have, particularly with budgets, [is] whether or not the current budget being submitted is adequate,” Michaud said. “And they feel very comfortable that it is adequate to deal with the safety issues.”
Pingree said the federal agency had proactively ramped up inspections over the last couple of years due to the increase in fuel shipments over the Maine lines, which she added had gone from just 25,000 barrels two years ago to more than 5 million now.
“[Szabo] mentioned they already had been aware of that and concerned about that and had increased their inspection of the tracks prior to this in Maine because of that,” she said.
Pingree added that reviewing current U.S. rail safety practices was an important priority in the wake of the Canadian accident, but also officials should study the growth of fuel being transported by train and where that presents dangers.
Both members say more will be clear when a report on what went wrong with the runaway train is completed.
“What everyone will be looking for is, is there something that could be changed,” Pingree said.
Michaud said the agency’s past reports on Maine rail lines have been not shown serious problems, but urges continued scrutiny.
“When the report comes back from Canada, we will be looking at that report and see where some of the weaknesses might be in our regulations here in the U.S. and see how we might be able to improve on that,” he said. “In the past, when you look at the reports that they’ve done, particularly on [Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway], there’s never been really, [any] serious problems.”
And while ensuring the agency has the resources it needs to address safety concerns is a priority for Michaud and Pingree, they said with a cost-cutting House Republican majority, nothing was guaranteed.