Fifteen people were confirmed dead and at least 60 remained missing in the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic days after a runaway train loaded with crude oil derailed and set off an explosion and fireball that destroyed much of the town’s center.
The Associated Press reports that inspectors were finally cleared to enter the charred site’s epicenter and look for more remains late Monday, to try to determine what allowed the train to roll out of a small rail yard and several miles down an incline into the town early Saturday morning.
Preliminary data from the locomotive’s event data recorder showed the train was going an estimated 62 mph when it hit a curve in the tracks and derailed at 1:15 a.m., Donald Ross, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge, told the National Post of Canada.
The train’s operator, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, based in Hermon, Maine, has averaged almost two crashes or derailments per year over the past decade with at least $50,000 damage in each, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. No one died in any of the previous accidents.
The federal data, which applies only to activity in the United States, shows the company’s accident rate per million train miles last year was 34.7, compared with the national rate of 2.27. The company has said that its rate can be higher because it carries freight fewer miles than other carriers. The 2012 rate reflects two reportable accidents.
“When you look at the total number of cars handled by the MMA, that’s pretty small,” said Kevin Burkholder, who publishes the online trade periodical Eastern Railroad News. “A defective car brake, you’re not going to know it fails until it fails. MMA doesn’t own most of the cars they’re operating. Oil tank cars are owned by private companies.”
On June 12, 2012, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic worker said he had left a rail car with its brakes on but turned to see it rolling down a 1 percent grade in a rail yard in Brownville Junction, Maine. The worker tried again to apply the brake but the car kept rolling, eventually colliding with another car at 5 mph. A defective brake rod was determined to be the cause.
On Feb. 23 of this year, a train bound for Lac-Megantic from Brownville Junction had an emergency in Jackman that led to one of the cars derailing and being dragged 2,000 feet at about 5 mph. The incident caused $23,000 in damage, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident report.
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railway, has said the engineer on the train before Saturday’s accident left one of the locomotives running to secure the brakes, then left the train unattended for the night — something that’s routine.
A fire was reported on the train about an hour before the derailment, and was put out. It’s not clear what role that fire may have played in the derailment and explosion, or whether the effort to put out the fire might have affected the brakes.
The company released a statement Sunday saying it appeared the locomotive was shut down after the engineer left for the night, which may have caused the air brakes to be released.
The company owns more than 500 miles of track serving Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick, according to its website.
The crash has brought attention to some rail companies’ practice of running trains with a single engineer. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic was one of the first to reduce the number of engineers on trains, several years ago, as it struggled with financial losses during the recession.
Some residents in Lac-Megantic told the Toronto Star that they saw propane tankers in the rail yard where the train derailed. But an investigator for the Canadian Transportation Board told the media that he had not heard the derailed cars may have struck a propane tanker.
The crash occurred about 10 miles from the Maine border in Franklin County.
The train had five engines, a buffer car and 72 tank cars loaded with crude oil from North Dakota. Its regular route would have taken it through northern Maine to an Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic does not have rail lines through the southern part of Maine.
Quebec provincial police sent more than 100 officers to the scene to determine whether the crash should be considered a criminal investigation. They have not ruled out a crime.
“We’re going to take any hypothesis into account on why the train derailed,” said Sgt. Gregory Gomez of the Quebec provincial police. “We’re trying to determine, first, is there any criminal element. That determines the direction of our investigation.”
Investigators are focusing in part on the fire that broke out on the lead locomotive at 11:30 p.m. Friday, an hour before the crash. Firefighters from Lac-Megantic doused the fire, shutting down the locomotive in the process.
Fire Chief Patrick Lambert told the National Post of Canada that he left the engine with two railroad employees about an hour before the crash.
Company officials and rail experts have said that shutting down power to the locomotive might have disengaged its brakes, which require power to maintain air pressure.
But that doesn’t explain why brakes on the rail cars, which automatically deploy when there is no power to the air pressure system, did not hold the train in place. And it doesn’t explain why the manual brakes, which are customarily activated on some of the rail cars when a train is left in a rail yard, did not keep it stationary.
“Theoretically, it shouldn’t have moved,” said Burkholder.
Company officials have said that, before the small fire, the train’s engineer “tied down” the train around 11:25 p.m. Friday, then went to a nearby hotel to sleep, leaving the train unattended for the next crew. Transportation safety laws prohibit engineers from driving a train more than 12 hours at a time.
It’s routine and not against regulations to leave a train running unattended for a new crew, said Burkholder.
The United States and Canada have requirements outlining the use of hand brakes when a train is left, although many railroads have policies that may exceed those minimum standards. The requirements call for setting enough brakes to ensure that the train can’t move.
An increase in crude oil shipments is helping the freight industry. Trains carrying crude oil have been traversing Maine almost daily. Another 80 to 100 cars of oil were behind the train that crashed, waiting in Montreal to come east, Burkholder said.
The increased traffic is spurring protests by environmental groups. The groups object to the transportation of oil — particularly oil from shale in western Canada, called tar sands oil — through Maine by rail, saying it is not safe.
Environmental groups also protest the use of pipelines to transport tar sands oil and say continued reliance on fossil fuels is having an irreversible impact on the Earth’s climate.