LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — The midnight scene last weekend in a lonely rail yard 7 miles from here was striking: 72 tankers loaded with crude oil, five parked locomotives, no crew, no guard.
For the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, that practice was business as usual — even in an era of heightened security and even for a train that can carry up to 2 million gallons of flammable oil.
But business as usual turned catastrophic when the unattended train rumbled downhill into the heart of Lac-Megantic, jumped the tracks, and unleashed billowing fireballs that left 24 confirmed dead and 26 missing.
Now, as residents await new tallies of the victims, the disaster has prompted calls for reform in an industry that critics assail as too loosely monitored.
“My jaw dropped,” said Keith Stewart, energy coordinator for Greenpeace Canada. “If you have a train with 72 cars loaded with an explosive substance, someone should be there, and you should not park it on a hill.”
Police and Canadian transportation investigators are poring over the charred tankers, interviewing the engineer and railway executives, and trying to reconstruct how the train became a runaway.
Data provided by the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington show that the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, a 10-year-old railroad with 510 miles of track in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec, has a higher rate of accidents and incidents, such as leaks, than the average for small US railroads.
In 2012, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic had an accident and incident rate of 36.1 for every million miles traveled. The average for similar small railroads was 26.2.
The previous accidents did not result in fatalities for the Maine-based railroad. President Robert Grindrod dismissed many of the accidents as insignificant fender-benders in rail yards.
“In 10 years, this is the only significant derailment we’ve had,” Grindrod said.
Grindrod told the Globe that having only a single crew member was not an issue in the tragedy. However, the single engineer aboard the train apparently did not set the brakes properly, according to Edward Burkhardt, chairman of the railway’s parent company.
“Single staffing of freight trains is a controversial practice,” said Seth Kaplan, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, “and this incident illustrates why, for sound safety reasons, many railways avoid doing it.”
In the United States, single staffing is legal but rare, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
“In almost every case, an engineer operates and a conductor manages a train, calling out signals and keeping inventory of its cargo,” Thompson said.
Although railroad executives and trade groups say the industry has a stellar safety record, most US communities are in the dark about the cargo that trains carry through their neighborhoods.
Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the federal government has sole oversight of the railroads, and that private freight operators such as the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic are responsible for their own maintenance and administration.
“As a transportation agency, there is nothing we can do to approve or deny the transport of cargo along our lines,” Lavoie said.“If there’s a derailment, we just take care of the issue presented to us. All we can do is respond.”
In Worcester, where trains are plentiful, Deputy Fire Chief Geoffrey Gardell said his firefighters are forced to play catch-up when spills and accidents happen.
“The only time we know what’s on a train is if there’s an incident we need to respond to,” Gardell said. “Then we can get a transcript of the train’s contents, but we don’t know what we’re really dealing with until then.”
In Bangor, a city used by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Riitano said he also lacks advance information about the cargo.
“I don’t want a dozen carloads of oil coming through town, but there’s not much we can do. Trains will come through with what they’re carrying whether we like it or not,” Riitano said.
Railroads and the government deliberately cloak the identity of hazardous rail cargo.
“As you can imagine, this information is considered by the Transportation Security Administration to be security-sensitive information and is carefully handled,” said Julia Wise, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group.
Local emergency officials will be provided with cargo information only if an official written response is submitted, Wise said.
This spring, Global Petroleum proposed plans to transport ethanol via MBTA commuter-rail tracks in densely populated areas north and west of Boston — including Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, and Everett — to reach a company terminal at Revere.
At the request of Somerville officials, the state Department of Transportation conducted a risk assessment and recommended the trains travel at the slowest possible speeds, follow rigorous schedules to avoid conflicts with other trains, and ensure that fire suppression systems and track equipment be kept in good working conditions.
The company withdrew its plans July 2, Lavoie said, after fierce backlash from Chelsea residents who were concerned about the transport of flammable liquids through the city.
Such concerns are well-founded, according to critics, who argue the railroad industry is using risky, aging equipment at the same time that its oil business is surging in North America.
According to the railroad association, major US railways carried 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008. The total ballooned to nearly 66,000 in 2011 and almost 234,000 in 2012, a haul fed by an oil boom in the upper Midwest, including the Bakken fields in North Dakota where the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic cargo that later exploded originated.
Much of that oil is hauled by tanker cars, called DOT-111s, that US transportation officials have warned are prone to rupture in a derailment. The oil that fueled the Lac-Megantic explosions was carried in such tankers, which Stewart said are thin-shelled and lack shields for valves and other vulnerable pieces of equipment.
Following a 2009 spill from a Canadian National train, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board wrote that the cars are susceptible “to release product at derailment and impact.”
Olivia Chow, an opposition member of Parliament from Toronto who specializes in transportation, and her party, the New Democrats, are calling for an end to the practice of using only one engineer aboard a train when dangerous goods are being transported.
The crew member responsible for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train that devastated Lac-Megantic was miles away, resting and waiting for a replacement, when his hazardous cargo hurtled toward town.
When asked for his reaction to the tragedy, Grindrod paused for several seconds.
“You feel terrible,” he replied. “What can you say?”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.