By John Toole
---- — The massive Quebec rail explosion comes as trains dedicated to hauling oil have started rolling through the same New Hampshire towns traversed by Amtrak’s Downeaster.
The disaster Saturday in Canada left five dead, 40 missing, forced 1,000 people to evacuate their homes and destroyed at least 30 buildings.
That train was carrying oil.
So are trains now passing through Plaistow, Newton, Kingston and Atkinson, the state’s rail safety inspector said.
“Recently, they have been running dedicated unit trains,” said inspector John Robinson of the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Rail & Transit. “Those are freight trains carrying all one type of commodity.”
The trains are transporting oil from the shale fields of North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick.
Robinson did not have details on the amount of oil passing through New Hampshire.
“It does vary, but there has been a pretty steady flow,” he said.
Officials said the state doesn’t have a reporting requirement about shipments, which for business reasons railroads are reluctant to discuss.
State and federal agencies have discussed the need for emergency preparedness because of the shipments, Robinson said.
“We’re still kind of in our infancy,” said Rick Berry, administrator of spill reponse and complaint investigation for the state Department of Environmental Services.
The Quebec explosion was a topic for discussion among DES officials yesterday, Berry said.
“That was kind of an unusual cirumstance that happened in Quebec, as I understand it,” Berry said. “This was a runaway train, unattended at the time. That’s a bit of an anomaly.”
Still, the oil industry’s expansion of rail freight use has officials wary of the need to be prepared.
“It looks like they will be increasing shipments,” Berry said.
Robinson said the Southern New Hampshire rail line, the Main Line-West, was inspected just last week.
“Because of the fact the Downeaster runs on that line, it is inspected with greater frequency,” he said. “That track is held to a much higher maintenance standard. That is one of the better tracks in the state. The quality of the track is second to none.”
Pan Am Railways, which operates the trains, has been running safely over that line for many years, he said.
Robinson couldn’t recall any major rail accidents in New Hampshire in his 13 years as inspector.
Kingston fire Chief Bill Seaman said area chiefs met last year for rail safety training.
There is a regional hazardous materials team that would be called on in the event of a serious rail accident and all departments would respond, he said.
“If something like this happened in any one of our towns, we’re all going to be there,” Seaman said.
The railroad also has workers trained in accident response, who also would be sent, he said.
Seaman said he intends to discuss the Quebec accident at his monthly department meeting, as he routinely does with major disasters.
Despite the increase, less fuel is being hauled by rail than what moves over the road, he said.
“We probably have a bigger threat on our highways,” he said.
The 2012 New Hampshire State Rail Plan said trains account for only about 7 percent of all freight moved in the state.
The Main Line-West also carries propane, minerals and lumber.
David Preece, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission executive director, said a goal for the state, outlined in its master plan, is to boost rail freight shipments.
“That’s a very inexpensive way to move freight,” Preece said. “I think there’s been a lot of discussion about that. In the rail master plan the state of New Hampshire recently adopted, rail freight does play an important part for the state.”