How suspect practices and policies helped fuel the Lac-Mégantic crash

Questions on the rail industry’s rules and self-regulation

Runaway disaster

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Early in the hours of July 6, a train made up of 72 cars filled with highly explosive fuel sat unattended on a steep hill, high above the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Somehow—whether it was a mechanical failure, or some freak occurrence, or an unforgivable act of sabotage—it broke loose. Within minutes, the train had picked up speed, and was charging like a missile straight toward this town of 6,000 people. At 1:14 a.m., having reached a speed of 101 km/h, it jumped the tracks in the centre of town, slamming into buildings and bursting into a massive fireball. Those caught in its path didn’t stand a chance.

Exactly what went wrong is now under investigation, but what is fast becoming clear is that Lac-Mégantic was a disaster long in the making. Trains are a familiar part of the Canadian landscape, rolling through towns and cities across the country. Few people bother to question what they’re carrying, or how they’re being run. When accidents do happen, odds are they tend to occur in an unpopulated area: in rail yards, sidings and spurs, where few people take notice.

But while railroads tout their own safety record, a close examination of the events leading up to the accident reveals an industry rife with suspect practices and policies, not the least of which is leaving an unattended train loaded with hazardous materials poised a few kilometres uphill from a town—with no one to watch it, no one to stop it and no failsafe mechanisms to alert operators if something went wrong. Others include the widespread use of outdated tank cars, whose walls are prone to punctures; a regulatory approach that leaves responsibility for ensuring safe operations to railroads themselves; and federal regulations that permitted Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) to operate a long and heavily laden train with a single engineer, a controversial practice.

With big oil companies increasingly relying on the rails to move their product, the stakes are becoming higher than ever. The Railway Association of Canada (RAC), which represents 50 rail businesses across the country, estimates that there will be 140,000 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail in Canada this year alone, up from 500 in 2009. (The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic was carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale development in North Dakota, en route to Irving Oil Ltd.’s refinery in Saint John, N.B.) The RAC stresses that, of the millions of carloads of dangerous goods transported each year, over 99.9 per cent are delivered without incident.


That obviously didn’t happen in Lac-Mégantic. For shell-shocked residents now looking for answers, a lack of basic information and finger-pointing in the days after the crash only contributed to the confusion. Edward Burkhardt, chief executive of Chicago-based Rail World Inc., which owns the MMA railroad, first suggested that local firefighters turned off the engine (and the train’s air brakes) following a first, small blaze that broke out. The fire chief responded with anger, while industry experts noted that if the train had been secured properly, disaster could have been avoided. When he finally visited the town earlier this week, holding an impromptu and sometimes awkward media scrum on the street, he appeared to have come full circle by laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of his engineer, who he said has been suspended. “I think he did something wrong,” Burkhardt told reporters. “He told us he applied 11 hand brakes, but our general feeling now is that is not true.”

Then, in another impromptu discussion with a Maclean’s writer over breakfast at a hotel in Sherbrooke, Burkhardt suggested that he had simply been searching for answers along with everyone else, and that several of his remarks had been misunderstood. “My intention is to try and get the facts,” he said. “And the biggest fact of all that we have to confront is that this train ran away.”

It must come as cold comfort to the people in Lac-Mégantic that critical errors, a lack of fail-safes, and compromises on safety led to so many deaths (24 confirmed so far) and so much destruction. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has launched an investigation, as have police. But the larger picture is emerging: Lac-Mégantic could conceivably happen again, in any number of towns or cities across Canada.

Spectacular freight train derailments have happened before, but rarely have they resulted in such dramatic loss of life. Twelve per cent of the railway traffic in Canada is considered “dangerous goods,” according to the RAC, which has a response team that conducts inspections and audits of railway yards, terminals and offices. Yet what happened in Lac-Mégantic seemed more like something out of a Hollywood film than real life. “I wondered what was in those tank cars,” says Rosa Galvez, an expert in hazardous waste spills at Université Laval who was staying at a chalet in Lac-Mégantic with friends when the crash happened. The TSB will only reveal that the train was carrying petroleum crude oil, but it may have been diluted with a substance like benzene, which, Galvez notes, is “very volatile and highly flammable.”

Investigators are still piecing together what happened. So far, this much is known: the train stopped late Friday night in the town of Nantes, about 12 km uphill from Lac-Mégantic. A lone engineer secured the train on the main track, not a siding (a legal but not common practice), and then left it waiting for another crew while he retired to a nearby hotel. A short time later, a local resident spotted a fire on board one of the five locomotives, which was quickly extinguished by the local fire brigade. Early on Saturday morning, the unmanned train rolled down the tracks, flying off the rails.

As for why the train was left unattended in the first place, Douglas Finnson, vice-president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents 16,000 Canadian railroad workers, says it’s not uncommon for train crews to leave an idling train parked in a rail yard or on a siding—even on a steep grade in the mountains—for a few hours during a shift change. But he says it’s unusual “that a train gets tied down and an engineer goes to bed.” It’s also unusual for a train to be left on a main track, according to Transport Canada officials, but there are no specific rules against it. Nor are there, as incredible as it may seem in this day and age, any federal rules against leaving a locomotive cab running and unlocked.

What regulations do require is that stopped trains must be sufficiently secured before they’re left unattended, usually by engaging some or all of the brakes on individual cars. “You apply it by hand,” Finnson says. “Every rail car has one. It’s a big wheel with a mechanism and chain that’s hooked up to the brake system.” The weight of the train and its load, as well as the steepness of the grade it’s parked on, determines how many hand brakes must be applied. Finnson says it’s also common to leave the diesel engines running, since they supply power to a compressor that keeps another braking system working.

In his interview with the CBC, Burkhardt initially suggested that shutting down the engine disabled the air brakes that night, implying that this system alone held the train in place. “Eventually it will leak down and the brakes will release. That’s what happened.” However, Finnson says that according to normal procedure, hand brakes—not air brakes—are paramount. “Of the four [types of] brakes, when you’re parking a train, the only one you rely on is the hand brake,” he says. He was also shocked to learn the train was being operated by a single engineer, noting that it could take over an hour to secure all the hand brakes on up to 72 cars. “There’s usually a conductor. If you’re working on a train there’s a lot of stuff to do.”

Beginning a few years ago, the money-losing MMA embarked on a controversial program to cut the number of crew members on each train from two people to one by using a remote-control device. The system allows a single engineer to control multiple locomotives, and often includes on-board cameras to allow the lone operator to view both sides of the train while it’s in operation. MMA president Robert Grindrod told the Bangor Daily News in 2010: “Obviously if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you are saving 50 per cent of your labour component.”

Transport Canada officials confirmed that they granted MMA approval to use the system last year as the Maine-based railroad prepared to handle a flood of crude oil headed to refineries on the East Coast. But the firm’s safety record has been called into question. In 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s rate was 36.1 accidents and incidents per million miles, compared to a U.S. national average of 14.6. Burkhardt says the company’s safety record is in line with other small railroads. Luc Bourdon, the director of rail safety at Transport Canada, says the railroad demonstrated to the regulator that it can operate safely, with just one person at the controls. He added that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway has been using the system for more than a decade.

With no one to stop the train once it started gathering momentum, the only thing left between it and Lac-Mégantic was 12 km of track. On some of the busier rail lines in Canada, there are sensors and signals to alert rail-traffic controllers of a runaway train. But there were none on the track in question, Donald Ross, the TSB’s lead investigator, later told reporters.

Hot weather would have increased pressure inside the tank cars before they sped down toward the town, jumped the tracks and piled on top of each other as they kept rolling. To create an explosion, says Gregory Patience, a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, “you need a fuel, an oxidant, and an ignition source.” As the tank cars ruptured and spilled oil over a large surface area, the contact with oxygen would have increased, he says. Metal on concrete produces sparks; sparks could have ignited the hydrocarbon vapours, producing an explosion.

To make matters worse, the tank cars involved in Saturday’s blast were an older model, called DOT-111 (CTC-111 in Canada), that can each carry more than 105,000 litres of fluids. As far back as the ’90s, Canadian officials have warned that these cars—which have relatively thin walls—are more likely to leak in a derailment. In 1995, a Canadian National Railway (CN) train derailed 28 cars near Gouin, Que., releasing 230,000 litres of sulphuric acid (no one was injured). In a subsequent report, the TSB noted that all the tank cars involved were Class 111, “known to be susceptible to product loss at derailment.” Keith Stewart, energy policy analyst for Greenpeace Canada, notes that about 70 per cent of all Canadian tank cars are made up of this model.

Speaking to reporters on July 9, Ross said the TSB had advocated for a stronger version of the 111-class cars; although, given the breakneck speed of the train when it derailed in Lac-Mégantic, some wonder whether it would have made a difference in this case. (CN and Canadian Pacific, Canada’s two major railways, declined to comment. Burkhardt of Rail World could not be reached earlier this week.) Marie-France Dagenais, Transport Canada’s director general in charge of dangerous goods, said during a briefing this week that a risk assessment was done by the regulator in conjunction with its American counterparts, and that the existing 111-class cars were “determined to be the best way to transport this type of commodity.”

Greenpeace’s Stewart believes the government should ban the use of older, weaker tank cars for carrying petroleum products, and review the oil transportation system. “They have to do something,” he says. “The question is whether they treat this as public relations, or a public safety problem.” Considering that these cars make up the majority of the fleet, it’s unlikely rail operators would voluntarily make a massive investment in an upgraded model.

Lac-Mégantic has also put a spotlight on a national rail system governed by a complex web of rules and regulations that vary by railroad type and the cargo involved. In part, that’s due to Transport Canada’s decision to move in 2001 to a regulatory model dubbed “safety management systems” that effectively asks railways to develop their own safety policies and procedures, which are then audited by regulators. Bourdon says that in the past year, the agency had inspected 511 of MMA’s cars, 37 crossings, 827 km of track and 20 locomotives.

Ian Naish, a rail-safety consultant and former TSB director for rail and pipeline investigations, says the approach works well in theory, providing that everyone from maintenance workers to the CEO is on board. “You have to have a buy-in from every level of the organization,” he says, adding that the Lac-Mégantic disaster would undoubtedly lead to much “soul-searching” in Ottawa.

The accident also occurred at a delicate moment for the rail industry. Just a few months earlier, representatives from railroads, government and petroleum producers gathered at Ottawa’s Fairmount Château Laurier to discuss the suddenly big business of hauling crude oil by train. With Alberta’s oil sands booming, and key pipeline projects like the Keystone XL bogged down by controversy, several producers are looking to move the gooey black bitumen by rail to refineries on the East Coast and into the U.S.

Cenovus Energy Inc., based in Calgary, moves about 6,000 barrels per day by rail (still a small amount of its total production, which amounts to more than 180,000 barrels per day). It plans to boost that number to 10,000 by the end of this year, and 30,000 by the end of next. Rail “can reach niche markets that aren’t connected by pipeline,” explains spokesperson Rhona DelFrari, and solves the problem of pipeline congestion. In addition to conventional crude, the company is planning to transport oil-sands bitumen by rail, using specially heated and insulated cars. The derailment in Lac-Mégantic is tragic, she says, but there’s a risk associated with moving products using any mode of transportation. “We feel that [rail] is a safe way to move product.”

A recent study done for the industry by consultant Malcolm Cairns, formerly of CP Rail, also found the risks acceptable. “Both modes of transport are remarkably safe, and rail is certainly not more dangerous than pipeline,” he says, adding that the data he used for his comparison came from the U.S. (he had difficulty securing Canadian numbers) and doesn’t include rail accidents that involve dangerous cargo like chlorine gas and sulfuric acid that pipelines don’t carry.

So why do accidents involving oil and gas products still seem to happen with alarming frequency? In May, five CP tank cars containing oil derailed near Jansen, Sask., with one car leaking crude; it was the company’s third spill in two months. Last month, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi lashed out at CP after another of its trains, carrying a petroleum distillate, derailed over the Bow River following the city’s massive flood. Garland Chow of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business likens the situation to the ongoing pipeline debate: “[Pipeline companies] have to prove the risk isn’t there, and that they have the resources to mitigate an accident.” Railways have been criss-crossing Canada for centuries, he says, but if they’re going to be transporting more oil, maybe it’s time for them to do the same.


How suspect practices and policies helped fuel the Lac-Mégantic crash

  1. Reported by CNN, but not by the Canadian Media Party:

    Lac-Megantic, Quebec (CNN) — Canadian authorities
    have found evidence that a criminal act may have led to a train crash in
    Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed at least 15 people, provincial police
    Capt. Michel Forget said Tuesday.

    There have been many
    questions about the crash and explosion that wiped out a swath of the
    town 130 miles east of Montreal. As of Tuesday evening, 35 people were
    still missing, Forget said.

    Authorities offered no further details about the case but said it was not caused by terrorism.

    “I will not speculate on the elements that we have recovered,” Forget told reporters.

    • A criminal investigation has been running parallel to the safety investigation since the get go. This is not news.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • If CNN is reporting this, it’s probably nonsense. The police will not be the ones to determine whether or not it is sabotage, unless they already have a suspect, who is talking. And if that were the case, I doubt very much they’d be tipping the American media and not our own. Evidence of sabotage will come from the TSB investigators if it comes from anyone. And their work is many weeks from completion.

          Since CNN is tossing out hypotheses that our own media seems unaware of, perhaps MMA execs are quietly spoon-feeding little tidbits of “information” to them? They’re probably avoiding the Canadian media like the plague right now. If they were trying to spread misinformation, the American media would be a much safer vehicle to use.

          Of course, I have absolutely no evidence of this. It’s just odd that CNN – which never even bothered to cover the disaster the first 2 days it happened – is now allegedly ahead of the curve on this. I call BS.

    • It was just announced that the police have ruled out human error.

      I wonder how many will call for a referendum on bringing back the death penalty?

      • The police don’t get to rule anything out. Show me a single police officer who knows anything about rail practices and procedures. The TSB investigators will take a long time to make such a ruling. I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, but I suspect you’re watching way too much CNN or Fox News.

        • This comment was deleted.

    • 1 – cancel MM&A’s operating permit until they are cleared by investigators.
      2 – stop oil shipments in CTC-111 cars
      3 – standardize safety requirements for class 1 and class 2 shippers
      4 – end one man trains
      5 – re-regulate instead of de-regulate

  2. This is the kind of event that seems to occur with casual regularity in Russia, with its antiquated steam-punk teknologie, during and even long after after the collapse of Communism. Planes crash, subs fail, reactors melt, trains derail, life goes on.

    It seems to be something associated with ruthless, expedient, and essentially indifferent autocracies, like Putin’s…and Harper’s.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • Wrong, as usual. I’ve had all my shots. Go back to minding your still.

        • Yup… I hear the banjo music too.

    • Mulcair is the only federal leader who has been promoting the idea of building more refineries in Eastern Canada , and even proposing to use government dollars to do it. At the same time, he is adamantly opposed to building more pipelines. More Eastern Canada refineries + no new pipelines = more oil moving by rail. Care to challenge that equation?

      • Tommie who?

        Commie will never be PM so who cares what he says about anything.

        That French citizen should move to France.

        • And you should crawl back to your Neanderthal cave.

        • Are people like you do really exist? I thought it was only in nightmares. But no they do really exist,

      • I’m not referring to the construction of new pipelines and refineries. I’m talking about obsolete infrastructure, archaic regulations that aren’t enforced, and cowboy entrepreneurship.

        • Rail transport regulations were revamped in 2001 – hardly ancient history. Shipping oil by rail is dangerous. Too dangerous in my opinion. Did you read the stats in the article? Fewer than 500 rail cars of oil were shipped each year until recently. There was a reason for that. It’s just not a good way to do it. But with pipelines maxed out, we’re going to see that grow by 28,000% (That’s a comma, not a period.) That sounds just crazy to me. Absolutely crazy. If we want to transport that much oil, we need new pipelines.

          • Single-hulled DOT111 tankers were identified as as inadequate for the transport of hazmats as long ago as 1991.

            Obsolete infrastructure and archaic regulations, as I said.

          • And there’s no reason to believe this would have been averted with better tankers. Probably, it could only be averted by preventing the cars from running away in the first place. With simple hand brakes.

            And yes, I agree the cars are inadequate, I’m just not convinved that the new ones are adequate enough to prevent a repeat disaster. The alarming increase in oil traffic by rail is, well, alarming. Pipelines aren’t foolproof, but to rely on rail in place of a pipeline is foolish.

          • It’s probably a reasonable assumption that the carnage would have been reduced if more robust tankers were involved.

            Regarding rail vs. pipeline, apparently it’s deemed “uneconomical” to install pipelines in smaller reserves like the Bakken range where this oil originated, or in many of the shale gas operations that won’t produce long enough to amortize the cost of a pipeline.

            So pipelines won’t be an option in a growing number of situations, according to oil producers themselves.

          • Sweetie, we aren’t talking about the regulations – we are talking about the antiquated vehicles being used to ship cargo they were never built for. You awake on this or still beating a dead horse?

  3. Thanks for mentioning the derailment in Calgary that happened during the recent flood. CP was quick to point out that the bridge had been inspected 18 times, except for the footings/pylons because it wasn’t safe to send scuba divers down to inspect them while the flood waters were still raging.

    But it was safe enough to send a tanker train across because as CEO Hunter Harrison (Canada’s highest paid CEO last year — $49 Million!) put it, to wait would “jeopardize commerce”.

    Harrison is no doubt breathing easier today and looking at fellow CEO Burkhardt and muttering to himself “There but for the grace of God go I”.

    Hey Hunter — was it worth the risk? Keep on defending commerce.

    Edward Burkhardt has done a great job searching for others to take the blame and avoiding any notion of responsibility at the top. Hey Ed — that engineer you suspended without pay was probably just following standard company procedure — the one that saves the most money.

    Yeah, let’s have all companies self-regulate. Of course any government regulation will “jeopardize commerce”.

    Don’t ya just love it when sociopaths are running the economy and the country?

    • That bridge is at the throat of Alyth Yard, one of CPs biggest. It is used almost constantly for train movements in, out, and around the yard.

  4. glad to notice that people are beginning to “wake up” about deregulation of industry. Right, deregulate and major players are deregulated to make “obscene” amounts of profit for shareholders and CEOs. But hey, that’s cost-effectiveness. what’s a bit of co-lateral damage here and there. The numbers support it. Isn’t it about time we stopped this party. And in the Caribbean too. Disgusted

  5. “Obviously if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you are saving 50 per cent of your labour component.”

    Transport Canada officials confirmed that they granted MMA approval to use the system last year as the Maine-based railroad prepared to handle a flood of crude oil headed to refineries on the East Coast. But the firm’s safety record has been called into question. In 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s rate was 36.1 accidents and incidents per million miles, compared to a U.S. national average of 14.6.
    Did this current harper government not realize this before allowing them to cut by 50% the engineers on board – only one of 2 railroads allowed this grossly inadequate policy? Time the little boys in the PMO realize that lives really are more important than stuffing the wallets of their unethical and unscrupulous cohorts.

  6. I have long been under the impression it took air pressure to keep the brakes off and lack of air pressure was what applied the brakes. Have I been deluded all these years?