GUEST COLUMN: By Chellie Pingree


There are many questions we can ask in the wake of a tragedy like the terrible derailment of a freight train in Lac Megantic, Quebec. The most important is, “What can we do to prevent it from happening again?”

The accident happened only 22 miles from the Maine border on a rail line that passes through our state and was used frequently to carry crude oil to refineries in New Brunswick. Needless to say, the tragedy that claimed the lives of 47 people hit close to home. Our hearts go out to the entire Lac Megantic community as it rebuilds and recovers from the devastation, especially the families who lost loved ones.

Since the accident happened in Canada, authorities there are charged with finding out exactly what went wrong. But the U.S. has an obligation as well to take this opportunity to review its own policies and infrastructure.

That’s why I’ve been working with Congressman Mike Michaud since the accident happened in early July to make sure that the federal government is doing everything possible to keep this tragedy from repeating itself. First, we asked that all rail lines and train operators carrying oil through Maine be inspected immediately. I’m glad that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) did send inspectors to Maine to look for any vulnerabilities and have them addressed.

We’ve also held meetings with the heads of every federal agency with oversight over freight rail safety: the FRA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In those meetings, we were able to get a sense not only of what protections are currently in place, but identify what else we should be doing.

The FRA took a good step forward this month in putting a number of emergency rules in place for freight trains carrying hazardous materials. These include prohibiting trains from being left unattended on the tracks without meeting stringent standards about applying brakes. (Though some details have yet to emerge, one thing we’ve learned is that in the series of accidents that led to the derailment in Lac Megantic, not enough brakes were set before the train was left unattended after an earlier fire.)

There are a number of other things we should be doing, however. One is updating the design of the tanker-car used to transport oil, a process which has taken far too long. I’m also cosponsoring a bill with Congressman Michaud to require a minimum of two-person crews on freight trains (many operate today with only one person). Another critical step is implementing an automated control system for trains, which could stop trains remotely if they begin to roll while unattended. I plan to use my seat on the House Appropriations Committee to advocate for funding to invest in this system for freight and passenger rail lines across the country.

Aside from rail safety, this incident gives us yet another reason to take a hard look at our energy future. The fuel that exploded was crude oil extracted from shale deposits in North Dakota. In recent years, the amount of crude oil transported through Maine to Canada has skyrocketed. Last March, it was 30,000 barrels a day just a year before it was 2,000. Whether transported by rail, truck, or pipeline, these materials pose significant risks that will only worsen as fossil fuels become harder to extract and transport. We need to continue investing in renewable energy sources that are safer for people and the environment.

I have always been a proponent of rail and continue to be so. Rail lines offer critical links for the Maine economy. We just need to make sure that those lines are as safe as possible for all the communities they pass through. I will continue to look for ways to make sure the risks of this increased traffic through our state are fully understood and accounted for.

Democrat Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s first Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.