ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In rural eastern Quebec, crews are still searching for dozens of people still reported missing after a train carrying oil and derailed and erupted into a fiery ball on Saturday. Authorities have confirmed five deaths. The accident comes as more oil than ever is moving by railroad, and that's raising questions about safety.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Exactly what happened early Saturday isn't clear yet. The Montreal Main and Atlantic Railways says in a statement that a locomotive engineer parked the train west of Lac-Megantic for the night. Somehow, the train started moving without anyone in control of it. The five locomotives and 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil then rolled down hill into the town, derailed and exploded.
Lac-Megantic resident Maxim Picard(ph) told the Canadian press that he was inside a bar that is now destroyed. He went outside, where he watched his car burn.
MAXIM PICARD: I saw my car in flames. A couple of seconds after that, I didn't see my car. The flame came in the middle of the downtown. It was crazy, the fire over the buildings.
BRADY: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the damaged downtown section of Lac-Megantic Sunday.
STEPHEN HARPER: This is an enormous area, 30 buildings just completely destroyed, for all intents and purposes, incinerated. You know, there isn't a family in this area that is not touched by this, that is not affected by this, that doesn't know somebody.
BRADY: As authorities work to identify those killed, the accident is raising questions about the practice of moving oil by railroad, both in Canada and the U.S. Outside the Montreal Main and Atlantic Railway headquarters near Bangor, the environmental groups 350 Main and Earth First held a press conference. Jim Freeman(ph) was one of the speakers.
JIM FREEMAN: I'd like to call for an independent survey, an investigation of the rail lines that carry these trains, that they're way heavier than a normal train. There's 104 cars come through Maine repeatedly. And the tracks are deplorable. Just walk a few hundred yards up the track and you'll be shocked at the condition that they're in.
BRADY: The Association of American Railroads says more oil was moved by trains in 2012 than ever before. The main reason is oil drilling booms in landlocked places, like North Dakota and Alberta. There aren't enough pipelines in these places to handle all the new production, so drillers are turning to railroads.
NANCY KINNER: Generally, the safety record for rail is fairly good.
BRADY: Nancy Kinner co-directs the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. She's examined the record of past spills for railroads and pipelines. She says overall the number of spills has gone down for both. But she says railroads have more incidents. That may sound bad but it's a little more complicated than that, says Kinner.
KINNER: Even though there were greater numbers of rail incidents, by almost double the number of rail incidents, the volume was much, much smaller. And that's because when you have a railcar, it can only release what its total volume in the car is.
BRADY: A pipeline, on the other hand, can spill much more before crews have a chance to shut it down.
Up to now, the public policy debate over how move new oil supplies from where they're produce to where they're used has largely centered on the spill records of pipelines versus railroads. But the Lac-Megantic disaster has underscored another issue - the safety of people who live near the transportation corridors for that oil.
Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.