ELLSWORTH, Maine — Despite their headline-grabbing nature, train derailments in Maine are few and mostly inconsequential, according to federal reports and state and private railroad officials.
A series of derailments on Maine tracks — including a 15-car March 7 derailment of a train carrying crude oil through Mattawamkeag — has raised questions about rail safety and how the state should prepare for accidents given the recent increase of crude oil moving over Maine’s rails.
According to the most recent Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, data, there were 69 reported derailments in Maine in the 10 years from Jan. 1, 2003, through Dec. 31, 2012. The trend, however, is downward and stabilizing; There were six derailments per year 2009-2012, down from a peak of 11 in 2006.
Of the 69 reported derailments, most were small incidents, with a few cars leaving the tracks but staying upright. None resulted in deaths or injuries, and the average speed of a derailed train was less than 10 mph.
“Derailments tend to be [sensationalized],” said Nate Moulton, director of the rail program at Maine Department of Transportation’s Office of Freight and Business Services.
“It doesn’t happen that often. If you hear about a truck going off Interstate 95, you think, ‘Oh yeah, so what?’ But train derailments seem like a big deal,” he said. “That statistic [of yearly derailments] doesn’t account for whether it’s one car that derailed and stayed upright or 15 cars derailed with three on their sides.”
According to reports filed with the FRA by the railroad companies, the most expensive derailment in the past 10 years in Maine occurred in August 2009, when 20 cars in an 80-car St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad train jumped the tracks while traveling 27 mph near Gilead, an Oxford County town on the New Hampshire border.
One car carrying ethanol was punctured and vapor escaped the train, according to the Gilead derailment report. A nearby camp was evacuated for several hours, and an investigation revealed the derailment was caused by a pre-existing fatigue crack in the rail. Damage to the train equipment and track in the Gilead derailment topped $1.08 million, according to the FRA report.
Another serious derailment took place in May 2012, when four cars in a 31-car Pan Am Railways train went off the tracks in Bucksport. Those cars tumbled into the Penobscot River and spilled between 400 and 500 gallons of a nonhazardous synthetic latex chemical used in papermaking.
Not every freight train derailment must be reported to the federal government — railroad companies are only required to report accidents that involve injury, death or hazardous material spills, or incidents that cause substantial damage to train or track equipment.
Railroad officials and experts said that derailments are always a cause for concern, but emphasized the relative safety of trains compared to other forms of transportation. Derailment reports filed with the FRA show that most derailments are minor incidents. The overwhelming majority of Maine train trips are uneventful.
Nationwide, train derailments in 2012 were down 43 percent since 2000, to an all-time low of 1.68 derailments per million train-miles, according to data from the FRA compiled by the Association of American Railroads. The association’s report was not broken down by state.
Despite declining derailment numbers nationally, railroad companies still take each instance seriously, said Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of Pan Am.
Pan Am operates more rail miles in Maine than any other company — 381 miles of the state’s roughly 1,170 miles of track. Of the 69 reported derailments in the past 10 years, 29 were on rails run by Pan Am, or Guilford Rail System as the company was known before 2006.
Maine, Montreal & Atlantic Railroad, the second largest rail company in Maine with 233 miles of track, had 32 derailments.
Scarano said her company reports derailments to the FRA if estimated damage tops $9,700. A threshold that low includes even minor incidents, she said.
“Derailments are always serious,” Scarano said Friday. “But industrywide, there’s different grades of these accidents. A derailment involving just one wheel off the track, we don’t see as major,” even if it may be reported.
When derailments are serious — such as the March 7 Pan Am accident in Mattawamkeag, where 13 cars carrying 403,000 gallons of crude oil fell onto their side just yards from the Penobscot River — the FRA gets involved and launches an investigation. In a stroke of luck that some called “miraculous,” only three gallons of oil were spilled in Mattawamkeag.
The FRA investigation into that derailment is ongoing, but Scarano said that after an accident of that magnitude, the company takes swift action.
Pan Am and the Federal Railroad Administration have both ordered geometry cars — train cars that take X-ray photos of the tracks below — to travel the rail near Mattawamkeag, Scarano said. The geometry cars will tell the company whether there’s a defect in the rail that caused the derailment, and point them to what might need repairing.
In the meantime, Pan Am is decreasing the maximum train lengths on that line, and replacing six-axle locomotives with four-axle ones, which are safer. The oil train involved in the March 7 derailment was 96 cars long.
Train derailments can have any number of causes, she said, not just problems with the track. Improper loading by customers, bad rail ties, faulty equipment, weather or even wildlife activity can all cause cars to jump the tracks.
“There’s so many factors that need to be considered,” Scarano said.
Because derailments can be caused by any number of scenarios, they may not necessarily indicate poor track quality. Railroads are privately owned or managed businesses, and the companies that own or lease the tracks are the ones chiefly responsible for weekly inspections and maintenance.
The FRA has the authority to review those inspections, and is also responsible for its own routine inspection of Maine’s railroads. In some states, including Maine, the FRA partners with the state Department of Transportation, which provides the staff to conduct inspections under FRA supervision. Those inspectors report directly to the FRA, not to Maine Transportation Department.
Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the FRA, said that while there’s no set schedule, federal inspectors are in Maine twice a year to check out Maine’s rails. Inspectors follow the FRA’s “ National Inspection Plan” developed in 2005, which uses trend analyses based on available accident, inspection and other data to direct inspectors. So problematic tracks would be inspected more often than tracks with fewer accidents.
According to the inspection plan’s summary, the plan addresses a problem at the FRA: “Like other modal safety administrations within [the Transportation Department], FRA has few resources for overseeing railroads compared with the scope of its responsibility. The new planning process allows FRA to use its inspectors more effectively and better target the greatest safety risks.”
Kulat said that while each Maine railroad is generally inspected twice a year, there’s no set timeline: “It could be more, it could be less,” he said.
While Kulat said he couldn’t comment specifically on the safety conditions of Maine’s railroad tracks, he said no railroad company operating in Maine had faced fines or sanctions from the FRA in recent year.
Because the FRA is the entity responsible for monitoring rail safety, state officials would not comment on the condition of railroad tracks in Maine. Kulat said a formal Freedom of Information Act request would be necessary to obtain FRA track inspection records, and the Bangor Daily News has made that request.
While hard data about the condition of Maine’s rails is difficult to obtain because of corporate privacy and government bureaucracy, state and industry sources say that Maine’s railroads are seeing an increase in usage, service and investment — Pan Am alone reports “millions” in investments to Maine operations in the past two years — which indicates the good health of the industry, if not the tracks.
“As far as the overall operations in the state, all the railroads in Maine are growing,” Moulton said. “There’s kind of a renaissance in rail, driven by the price of fuel and better service from the railroads in the past few years.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.