The unlearned lessons of Lac-Mégantic -

The unlearned lessons of Lac-Mégantic

Just months after the horrific train crash in Quebec, the rail industry is ramping up to carry even more oil


Paul Chiasson / CP

Kerrobert, Sask., is perfectly situated to be a railway hub. Its central midwestern location makes it suited for delivery westbound, eastbound and down to the United States. That’s one of the reasons why, in early August, Torq Transloading Inc. pegged the small town of 1,061 people for its new $100-million rail hub for shipping oil. A week later, Torq also revealed plans to expand the Unity Rail Terminal in Unity, Sask., less than an hour’s drive north from Kerrobert. That will allow it to handle trains hauling 120 tank cars of crude—a three-fold increase from what the terminal currently accommodates. Meanwhile, a short drive across the border in Alberta, Gibson Energy has announced plans for a major terminal in the town of Hardisty, which would be able to ship 140,000 barrels of crude by rail every day.

It’s been less than two months since 72 tank cars filled with crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people, but of all the scenarios Canadians may have expected in the aftermath, a massive expansion in the shipment of oil by rail probably wasn’t one of them. Yet even as officials and experts debate the practice, including in a wide-ranging Senate report released last week that called for the industry to improve its safety, oil transportation by rail shows no signs of waning.

Not surprisingly, many aren’t thrilled with this latest round of expansion. “We think it’s safer to ship oil by pipeline than rail, and I think the Quebec accident underlines that reality,” says Peter Prebble, a policy director for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

On the ground in Kerrobert and other small oil communities, however, people take a far more nuanced view. Erhard Poggemiller, the mayor of Kerrobert, says his community is keenly aware of the safety issues, what with three pipelines running right by their town for decades and oil trains regularly passing through. “I think everyone had a major wake-up call [regarding Lac-Mégantic], including our community,” he says. But the new rail hub will be an obvious boon to the town. “We feel very confident that the safety issues that needed to be addressed have been and are being addressed.” If anything, he is more concerned with how to maintain local roads in the face of increased traffic. “This was a no-brainer for us because we know what we’re getting into.”


Still, as last week’s Senate report made clear, there are steps that could be taken to boost safety. For one, the committee called on the government to force railway companies to replace the DOT-111 (or in Canada CTC-111a) tank cars that are commonly used to carry oil, but which critics say are unsafe for carrying hazardous goods. Those were the types of tank cars that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, and the Transportation Safety Board documented their shortcomings as far back as 1994. “We can’t continue to use railcars that may not meet the standard continually and hope that we’re going to have good safety,” says Sen. Richard Neufeld, who chairs the committee. However, approximately 240,000 of these cars are still in use today and the industry has repeatedly said the cost of retrofitting them, estimated at more than $1 billion, makes it unrealistic.

A more affordable recommendation from the committee was for rail companies to boost their liability coverage. That could help avoid a repeat of the situation in Quebec where Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had insufficient insurance to cover the damage to Lac-Mégantic. The company has filed for bankruptcy protection.

While Calgary-based Torq is rushing to expand its oil transport hubs, the company says it is not responsible for the types of cars its rail customers use. “As far as safety goes, the only thing I can control is the way I load the railcar—controlling the vapours, sealing the car properly,” says Torq CEO Jarrett Zielinski. “We believe putting heavy oil into a tank car may provide safety benefits equal to or better than pipelines.”

With continued high demand for crude, and railways seen as an affordable way to transport it, the recent wave of expansion is likely to continue, despite loud opposition, says Manish Verma of McMaster University, an expert in the transportation of dangerous goods. “Most people would be very shocked as to how these [new rail hubs] are being allowed to go ahead,” he says. “The harsh reality is everything is dictated by cost economics.”

The other reality is that as long as there’s a need to move oil from one place to another, as Sen. Grant Mitchell, deputy chair of the committee told reporters, there can be no such thing as “zero risk.”


The unlearned lessons of Lac-Mégantic

  1. Macleans’ writer Hutchins could have done a better job in describing the real “unlearned lessons,” of which the largest is that rail needs continuing infrastructure renewal. First, remember that there was an on-going practice of using Nantes as a lay-over point. If that is the practice, then it makes sense to build a siding onto which the trains will pull, with the far end terminating in a butt point or stub with a hefty bumper at the end – mounted on a slight downslope. The access to that siding would be governed by spring-switches, so the “points” of the switch always head into the stub siding. The engineer pulls his train forward – obliged into the stub by the set of the spring-switch – and it sits there.

    Under these conditions, if the engine and train release brakes, it makes no difference: the train can ONLY go forward and roll into the bumper, as it is held there by gravity (the slight downslope). It makes no difference if the train crew is one or ten; it makes no difference if the compressors are left running or not; it makes no difference if the locomotive is locked; it makes no difference if the brakes are set or abandoned. The train can only roll a few feet to the bumper – and is held fast.

    How much does this cost? Less than $100,000.

    • The siding at Nantes was already occupied by another train.

      Sidings are usually double ended, and have derails before the turnouts to ensure that a runaway does not proceed to the main line. Making a one-way siding would guarantee occasional derails as the train would have to reverse to exit the siding, and trains do poorly in reverse.

      If the points of the turnout were always set to the siding, no train could pass that siding on the main line, so why even have the turnout at all?

      In reality, the points of the turnout stay where they are set, be they remotely powered or locally manual.

      • Let me clarify a bit.
        First, the Nantes siding was not occupied by another train, it was being used for empty boxcar storage, the cars intended to be loaded at the particleboard plant in the industrial park at Lac-Megantic (built on what once was the municipal airport, behind the Town). This was an improper use of that siding, and there are storage sidings both in town and at the industrial site.

        A “spring switch” can be manually turned; the beauty of the spring arrangement is that it directs the Eastbound train into the siding (since it is intended to go into layover mode) yet the Westbound trains can pass the switch without having to turn the control lever; the spring lets the points slide over as each wheel truck passes. If you want to “go straight,” then the switchman gets off, removes the padlock, and throws the control lever over to redirect the points. The idea is to create a “default setting” where the train is customarily directed into that siding.

        Yes, you could install derails, which come in two types: permanent, and portable. If you rely on a permanent derail, then that is one more maintenance point and if someone forgets to clear the derail then you end up with a derailed traincar, or engine, which is not innocent. Trains can tip over when derailed, even at walking speeds. If the derail is portable, then the engineer has to set the derail, usually in two parts (one on each rail), and bolt them into place, in the night, in rain, snow, and so forth – so they get ignored.

        Yes, the Nantes siding is set up as a “through” siding, with switches at each end. Thus, to convert this into a fail-safe layover point, just before the Eastern switch yet another switch is installed, with a short stub track into a bumper. That switch is set for the stub, and the train is then parked with the first engine onto or past the points. If the train is sabotaged, or whatever, and rolls, it is only going down the short stub and into that bumper. Because it is a trailing switch when the train is in reverse, it does not have the “pick the point” risk of a leading switch. Yes, the engineer does have to “back up” a short distance (if only the first axle is placed over the points, it back up about ten feet), then the stub switch is thrown, and the train continues on its way. The siding merge switch is again a spring switch so that the Westbound trains run past on the right, and the down train can merge without having to throw the switch. By setting up your layover spurs in this way, you get around the problems of unattended trains or inadvertent runaway; any train that gets loose goes 100 feet and into the hefty bumper, where it is held by gravity.

        • A derail holds just as well, once the lead engine goes onto the ground.

          It’s cheaper and easier to maintain.

          • And who is going to re-rail a 200-ton locomotive out in Nantes, Quebec, or at that other siding at the Border? Way out there in the middle of nowhere? Who pays for bringing in a gigantic crane to lift that back up? Getting it back on with a rerailer and engine power alone is a dubious proposition. Plus, it is entirely possible to tip one over on derail (yes, it has happened). Gets pricey.

            Engines and tankcars do not do well when they depart the rails. Better to keep them on the track.

          • Heh heh heh… the same folks who now have to hoist dozens of burnt out tank cars, of course.

            Derailers are ubiquitous on modern railway lines, present at every non-yard siding I’ve ever seen, and present at yard throats where the risk of running onto the mainline is present.

          • Of course they are. On the non-yards, to keep some boxcar from getting loose – and everybody expects them to be there, so everybody is watching out. Re-railing a boxcar is not the same thing as re-railing a nose locomotive. As to yard throats, again you have switch guys whose job is to keep on top of them. The problem with a secondary siding like at Nantes is (1) it is remote and lightly used, so as a practical matter you are relying on one engineer to be 100% perfect and never make a mistake, and (2) you rely on the derailer to protect the lives of an entire town. A derailer by its nature can be left inactive, defeating the device. A spring switch set to a stub is by its nature left active – the default position is into the stub. In my view you have to get the human-factors variable out of the equation, as much as possible. Look where unanticipated errors got us the last time around.

          • Of course if your spring thing fails, then you risk derails at high speeds on the main line. It’s another maintenance issue.

          • Take a look at a spring switch next time you are poking about a rail yard, you will see that they are failure-proof. Good for 100 years. Also, keep in mind that the Montreal Main and Atlantic runs at a top speed of about 20 mph, nothing there to be concerned about.

            To see spring switches in action at every switch point, go to Amsterdam and look at the trolley layouts. They run one line down the street and flypasts with springs every three blocks. The trolley trains (usually 5-car) whoosh along in opposite directions and pass at the stops, alternating on the mains. The springs are running all day around the clock, never fail. Totally flawless.

            For the MM&A, the greater risks are worn rails (including switch frogs and points) and deteriorated bridge girders, and rail ties. That is why there are speed restrictions on the entire line. It is a sleepy little branch line that putts along, before you get to “high speeds” you would end up rebuilding the entire line, every piece. No chance of that.

            Not to suggest that derails are not usable; they are. But (big but) they require being installed and set properly – a human-factors component. As has been learned from Lac-Megantic, the human factor is where things go wrong – with grave losses. For that type of set-up, better to make it foolproof. Sure, it costs a bit more. Small price to pay when the consequence s are so catastrophic.

  2. What writer Hutchins fails to note is that small short-lines tend not to have a lot of capital, yet provide a valuable transport service. Despite society’s benefits, society chooses to leave the short-line to its own devises when it comes to maintaining the plant. the result is predictable: nothing changes. The Town had altered in size, and expanded, around the original rail trackage. Now the trains are hauling demonstrably flammable cargo – and not only inert logs and particle-board. Is a by-pass built around the Town? Nope. Why not? The carrier does not have the capital, perhaps $20 million, to do it. Yet having new trackage obviously safeguards the community.

    As a society we do not expect truckers to pay for highway by-passes; indeed, there are such new bypasses and interchanges right outside Lac-Megantic. We do not require air-carriers to go build new airports outside town. but we require railways to pay for, and maintain, all rail trackage. That makes no sense. Had by-passes been built, you would not have had this rail disaster.

    Doing such track rebuilds, aside from the safety aspects, also have immediate other social benefits. New ties only cost about $40 each; replacing ties absorbs Summer labor surpluses and improves track. As the ties and ballast are improved, the trains can operate at greater speeds, resulting in lower shipping costs – and improved competitive advantage in the markets for the products of those factories along the MM&A. Do we expect airlines to pay to resurface runways? Do bus companies pay to resurface roads and install traffic lights in towns? But we put the capital burden on the rail company – and the result is a gradual deterioration of track and speed restrictions.

    If the train can operate at 45 mph instead of 25 mph, then the railroad can pay for extra crew on trains; with transit times faster for the cargo, the overall labor costs can remain level if the time in transit is reduced. Critics seem to overlook this.

    What also remains overlooked by writer Hutchins is that the alternative to rail is shipment by either pipeline or tanker. Is converting an antique natural-gas pipe to carry heavy crude a bright idea? What are society’s costs when that one breaks? And ignites? If by tanker, what are society’s costs when a tanker loaded in Duluth, or perhaps Detroit, or even Montreal, runs aground and splits? Remembering that there is no tanker route anywhere on the globe that has not had at least one tanker come to grief, and also that a tanker carries some 63,000 tons of oil, society is looking at a lot of damage. Do you want that at the Soo? Kingston? How about the St. Lawrence? Gaspe?

    Compared to that, a well-maintained rail line with town by-passes starts to look rather good.

  3. The Harper government is clearly responsible for the tragic human and financial damage that recently occurred at Lac-Megantic. The publicly available evidence clearly shows that the Harper government has knowingly avoided regulating or even studying the implications of shipping crude oil by rail precisely because they know the
    oil industry wants this expedient method of shipping crude.
    Here are the facts:

    First, the number of rail tank cars carrying crude oil has increased from about 500 per year to about 140,000 per year over the past five years. All on Harper’s watch.

    Second, both the Transportation Safety Board in Canada and its USA counterpart have been saying for about 20 years that the majority of tank cars used for crude transport in North America are not suitable for that purpose and should be replaced in the interest of public safety. Changing that clearly would increase costs ultimately reducing corporate profits for both the rail and oil industry. This is obviously something Harper has been told to avoid.

    Third, the Harper government has known since it came to office that crude production would rise beyond the capacity of existing pipelines and that rail transport would be the
    next option chosen. After all Harper’s primary promise for Canada’s prosperity is based fundamentally on ever increasing crude production and export.

    Fourth, the Harper government has knowingly and carefully made NO evaluation of the impact of using inadequate tank cars on existing overused rail line to transport
    dramatically rising volumes of potentially dangerous crude beyond volumes ever previously contemplated. After all, this government has proven over many years
    and many instances that it prefers to use gut feel rather than analysis and fact based decision making. In addition it has a clear propensity to cut regulations that in any way impede crude oil export.

    Fifth, the Harper government knew that the oil industry would certainly turn to rail as an
    expedient method of transport because of the delays in pipeline approvals due to the Harper government’s mishandling of this issue. The Harper government’s extremely partisan and fact free promotion methods have done more to alienate the general public than convince the public that pipelines are a reasonable alternative in the national interest.

    Sixth, the oil industry has turned to the expedient use of rail transport to market ever increasing crude volumes, while carefully avoiding any judicious or prudent examination of the implications to public safety or the environment. They follow the Harper lead of careful attention to next month’s bottom line while ignoring any long term vision or national priorities. That’s what comes from relying on unregulated corporations to make all economic decisions.

    Finally the oil companies, in their rush for bottom line results will likely continue fill tank cars with crude that has not been stabilized properly, which makes the crude highly volatile and explosive. Mr Zeilinski’s comments make this clear.

    These facts squarely put the Harper government in the hot seat for what happened in Lac-Megantic and what other communities across the country may expect. Harper frequently makes the case that governments should never get involved in economic decisions and have relegated that decision to his corporate friends. It is clear that
    with respect to crude oil transportation, ONLY government is in the position to perform the studies and make the necessary hard decisions in the interest on public safety, the environment and the general national interest. This is a perfect case for action and regulation by government and Harper knows it but has failed Canadians.

    The Minister of Transport should put a hold on further transport of crude oil by rail until a comprehensive study is completed that examines the capabilities of the existing rail infrastructure, the design parameters of rail tank cars, the anticipated volume of crude to be shipped by rail and the impact that handling these volumes have for public safety. It is irresponsible for the government to turn a blind eye to the potential for tragedies like it clearly has since taking office.

    • Or just make the approval processes more efficient so that pipelines can be put into operation sooner.