Editorial: Don’t blame oil for the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic - Macleans.ca

Editorial: Don’t blame oil for the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic

Considering the social costs of trains — oil-carrying, and otherwise

Don’t blame oil for the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Trains are killers. You don’t need your local paper to superimpose the destruction from Lac-Mégantic onto a map of your city to figure this out, although a lot of news organs will be eagerly providing this helpful service in the coming days. If you grew up anywhere near a rail line, you already know it. Most of the killing done by trains in this country is of two kinds. Every year, a couple of dozen people die of carelessness at level crossings, mostly at public ones, many at ones with noisy automated gates and flashing lights. And every year, about 50 people die when they trespass in a rail yard and get run over, or freeze to death, or suffer a fall. Over the past 10 years, from 2003-12, trains have killed 810 Canadians in one of these two ways.

Believe it or not, this represents a painful, incremental improvement over the previous decade, when the figure was more like an even thousand. It remains to be seen, unless you are omniscient like Thomas Mulcair, whether lax Conservative regulation and safety-budget cuts played a role in the disaster at Lac-Mégantic, though there are plenty of concerns about the way the industry operates. But the Conservatives must be credited with playing a part in the saving of hundreds of lives by funding safety upgrades at level crossings, and the oh-so-wicked rail industry has helped, too, by funding education programs and engineering studies.

Even after a supreme horror like the Lac-Mégantic accident, it is surprising to hear otherwise intelligent people suggesting that trains are only dangerous if they happen to be carrying crude oil. Trains do plenty of killing without the cargo mattering a bit. Electric-powered urban commuter trains kill. (“There will be a short delay before we can proceed to the next station . . .”) Trains laden with shipping containers full of refrigerators and Xboxes and stuffed animals kill. And we accept all this, by and large, as the price of not living at a subsistence level. If you don’t like the inconvenient way trains pass through the middle of cities and towns built around them in the first place, it may be the existence of cities and towns that you are really objecting to.

It is too soon to dare draw any conclusions about the causes of the Lac-Mégantic accident, but what we do know is there are almost no obvious precedents for it in the last 50 years or so. Several things had to go wrong, bizarrely wrong, for a quiet little town to be decimated by a speeding oil bomb in the still of the night. Even the frenzied exploitation of the Bakken oil field almost certainly qualifies as one of the “causes,” since it has increased the amount of rail traffic carrying oil so markedly and made worst-case incidents more likely. Investigators will treat the accident as inherently preventable—that’s what they do—and in some way or other, it probably was. Measures specific to trains carrying crude oil may be among the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board.

But it is not realistic to demonize oil trains as if there were no social costs involved in operating any other kind of train, or any other kind of transport at all. (Do trains ever carry solar panels to us from China? Are they ever used to move wind turbines?) This is more an aesthetic impulse than it is a matter of logic. Oil is ugly and foul. We resent our dependence on it, which is linked to precisely those chemical qualities that make it dangerous under certain circumstances. That makes it tempting to pretend that this dependence is somehow illusory, that we could simply move on from oil by an act of collective will. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

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Editorial: Don’t blame oil for the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic

  1. Well laid out article. I had no idea that in the last decade that many Canadians had died as a result of rail lines and traffic. Thank you for the balanced approach to this sensitive topic.

    • lagatta à montréal:

      Far far fewer than those who are killed by cars and trucks. Obviously rail safety must be radically improved and deregulation turned around, but overall rail is less polluting and has a lower death toll than road traffic. The problem here, other than the oil, was a rogue, unregulated company with woeful safety standards, and government that let it away with murder.

  2. If we look at the total cubic metres of rail-shipped substances which, when involved in a railway accident, would cause a deadly explosion of the kind just experienced, what percentage is oil?

    • But we can’t blame the oil, clearly, we cannot fault the oil for being explosive.

  3. Funny how trains and oil are being discussed while the debate of an oil / gas line is being discussed .. look at trains & how bad they are … now let’s take a poll would you rather dangerous trains people or gas line … Like come on … sounds like another lead on for the general public , who will get not one dime on the billions of dollars to be made .. but ok , let’s focus on the dangers of trains

  4. But there should be progress, if we are not living in a new dark age of supressed science and free-speech about science. When a government runs away with a democracy by ignoring its primary tenants, that’s a problem. Instead of incremental progressive adaption, we are doing massive regressive mal-adaption, cognitive dissonance and denial.

  5. “Trains are killers” . What is your point ? People are killed by cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and from falls while walking . The transport of explosive, inflammable, poisonous , or corrosive materials by any means presents risks and dangers that a load of pampers would not ! Appropriate precautions and safeguards to minimize adverse consequences would to me seem logical ………..

    • “………The transport of explosive, inflammable, poisonous , or corrosive materials by any means presents risks and dangers that a load of pampers(sic) would not !……”

      Would that not depend on whether the Pampers were new or used? And if the ‘operators’ of said Pampers were bottle-fed or breast-fed?

  6. Yeah trains blow up and kill dozens of people all the time. Let’s keep things in perspective!

  7. Trains are far less dangerous than the carnage on the highways. Management like Rail World, maybe a bit more dangerous.

  8. Trains laden with shipping containers full of refrigerators and Xboxes would not have kill and do that much damages in lake Megantic.

    The real problem is that in the past 10 years trains full of oil containers have been multiplied by 10 due to the boom of the oil industry. At the same time they did not increase the security mesures that goes with it. On top of that If the ideology of your government believe that a government should not interfear with business – Chances are that the railway company will take more chances, load more containers,, hire less people in order to maximise profits. More profits less responsabilities … The real problem is money …

    Another thing that need to be changed: Railway companies must not disclose, by the law the hazardous product they carry. As a result Fire Department personnal dont know with what hazardous product they will have have to fight with.Only the railway company knows it . Fire personal are not well prepared for their interventions because of that stupid rule, and citizens living by the tracks also have the right to know what hazardous product surrond each days.

  9. Unless we give up cars, give up commerce and return to the forest to live off the land there will always be risks in living in modern society.

    • Yes. Obviously the choice is either we discard civilization completely, or we make our peace with the occasional neighbourhood being blown off the map. No other options exist. At all.

      At least.. not for morons.

    • It is also possible to drastically reduce the number of cars in cities without doing any of the rest of that. Rail transport, with proper oversight, and cities that privilege quality public transport and walkability exist, and exist in modern societies with modern commerce and other endeavours.

  10. Of course oil should not be blamed. The culpable are those who have resisted pipelines.

  11. That an averate of 81 deaths per year. What the article fails to mention is that an average of 2900 people die each year in Canada in vehicle accidents. Better start riding bikes.