In Lac-Mégantic, the investigation begins

Paul Wells on theories about how a 72-car train could just roll away and explode

by Paul Wells

(Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Perhaps the only people who don’t think they know how the Lac-Mégantic train derailment happened are the guys in charge of finding out.

As surely as uneasy day follows deadly night, there was no end of theories over the weekend about how a 72-car train could roll, unattended after midnight Friday night, from its parking spot in Nantes down a grade to Lac-Mégantic, where it finally jumped the rail and exploded, razing much of the town.

Youtube videos, shot on Sunday, show a long train from the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway idling unattended near the town. The implication is that the company doesn’t watch its equipment closely enough, even now. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair blamed the Harper government’s rail safety polices on Saturday and backtracked only a little on Sunday. A vast increase in oil transport by rail surely has at least something to do with the accident — if the train hadn’t been carrying oil, its destruction might have been less catastrophic — but there will inevitably be debate over the conclusion to draw from that observation. Use pipelines instead of trains? Or simply leave the oil in the ground?

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Then there is Donald Ross, the lead investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada onsite, and Ed Belkaloul, the TSB’s Manager of Eastern Region Rail Operations. They’re in charge of finding out what actually happened. While they do that, theories are positively risky, because they might make investigators look over here when the clue they need is over there. 

By yesterday, Belkaloul told reporters at a media roadblock on Lac-Mégantic’s main drag, there were nine TSB investigators onsite. “Today we succeeded in examining the locomotive, because it’s outside the security perimeter,” he said. (Much of the train remained off limits to anyone but firefighters yesterday, as fire crews sought to cool the still-hot tanker cars with streams of water so intense that parts of the crash site were knee-deep in water.) “We recovered the famous black box, and we also recovered what is known as the braking detection unit.” That piece will be crucial, because when the conductor left the train in Nantes, he believed he had immobilized it for the night. “Our inquiry must be very complete, so we will try to interview the railway company and everyone who was involved, directly or indirectly, in this incident,” Belkaloul said.

What about news of an earlier fire on the same train in Nantes, a reporter asked. Would they be looking at that? Absolutely, Belkaloul said. “We’ll undertake what we call a 360-degree investigation. We’re going to try to bring all the information together, not leave anything for granted.”

They’ll be taking their time. They’ll need to. “It’s a very challenging site, as you know,” Ross said. “It’s a huge accident with horrendous consequences.” With the nine TSB investigators; more than 60 Sûreté du Québec investigators onsite and in the surrounding municipalities; and the rail company’s own investigators waiting for their own chance to visit the site, it’s a bit of a jumble right now. All concerned were hoping the entire site would be cool enough today that they can begin to move more freely around the disaster zone.

The town’s mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, briefed reporters before heading into a meeting with three ministers from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’s cabinet. This is Roy-Laroche’s third and last term as mayor, and in 12 years in the little town she’s never seen anything remotely approaching this catastrophe.

Until Friday night, the challenges facing Lac-Mégantic were the same as those facing any number of towns its size (6,000 people) facing industrial decline. The main local industry was wood transformation. “Since we’re in a slowdown, our challenge — I should say the challenge we had, the one we were attacking — was to diversify our economy and go look for new industry,” she said. Now just about everything she was working on has been wiped out. “Many things have fallen apart.”




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In Lac-Mégantic, the investigation begins

  1. “Use pipelines instead of trains?”

    Don’t think that’s the choice. Train transport is apparently typical for smaller or depleted fields where a pipeline is not economical.

    • A few comments:

      1. The “Little Red Caboose” book that I read to my son, and that was read to me, first published in the ’50s, I think, has a bunch of oil cars. Transporting oil by train is not new.

      2. Transporting oil by train because noone wants pipelines anymore is new. Canada’s National Energy Board is considering at least one case where the relative economics of train vs. pipeline transportation, and the effect of Bakken production and the Brent-WTI price differential, are material considerations.

      3. Clark’s “5 conditions” for transporting oil by pipeline across the BC border, and Redford’s response of “what else would that apply to?”, are certainly put into perspective here.

  2. If transporting oil by rail is an issue then we have to address the numerous other hazardous materials that are transported across this nation via rail, and have been for decades. Are we going to stop transporting hazmats? No. Then let us not be so myopic as to pick on oil.

    And then there’s the statements by railway officials saying the train was sabotaged. https://twitter.com/JacquesGallant/status/354043215063691265

    • They said the locomotive appears to have been shut off. That isn’t to say it was sabotaged: the person who shut it off might not have realized the consequences of doing so. Never attribute to malice that which might adequately be explained by stupidity.

      • Like not using the hand brakes?

        Do you use the emergency brake when you park your car?

        • Why are you asking me? I was just pointing out that the rail officials did not claim, contrary to the post above, that the train was sabotaged. There’s been no hint since that it was sabotaged. What do my driving habits have to do with that?

          • It is the term stupidity that I was referring too.

            It seems that the hand brakes were not set. My Q is quite simple, how many people set their hand brakes, does this mean that most people are stupid?

            As for blaming the fire department for shutting of a locomotive, it should have been properly shut down by the Engineer.

          • The phrase is, I had thought, a common enough one that my use of it wouldn’t be taken quite so literally.
            As it stands, I set my hand brake every time, but I drive a stick shift. My mother doesn’t, as she drives an automatic. Neither of us drives locomotives, and both of us are capable of discerning apples from oranges. Can you?

          • Without inspections hand brakes will not be applied by everyone. It is one of the things that people have gotten away with without ever having any negative impacts on their lives.

            This is not apples and oranges, we are all human and we have good and bad habits.

            Inspections of parked trains may help engineers practice more good habits. Self regulation is another accident waiting to happen.

          • If I am responsible for a vehicle carrying several tonnes of explosive, then it is incumbent on me to do all that I reasonably can to ensure that said vehicle will not careen into a small town, explode, and kill dozens of people. Putting your car in park even on a hill is, under everything but extraordinary circumstances, sufficient to hold the vehicle. Even in those cases where it is not sufficient the maximal damage a runaway car will do is – usually – limited, in that a medium-sized tree can stop one. That is not the case with trains, and certainly not trains with explosive cargo. Apples. Oranges.

          • There are more levels of responsibility. The transportation safety board and the regulators have one also. We must have better training standards and the regulators must make sure that they are followed.

            Putting all of the blame on the engineer is not going to prevent another occurrence.

            “If you were responsible, you would …” Apples and oranges, you are not. We are as human as he was. Mistakes are made.

            You are not responsible as he was not. You claim that putting a car is park is enough when it is clear that you were trained otherwise to get your licence. You are making the same mistake, but this person’s mistake had a very tragic ending.

          • There is nothing in your first paragraph that is borne out by the facts as currently understood. There is nothing in your second paragraph that is relevant to anything I’ve said. Your third paragraph indicates that you see no essential difference between the amount of care that should be taken with a trainload of explosives and a Mini Cooperwith a load of groceries, which, frankly, is a notion for which I have nothing sensible to reply. Your fourth paragraph indicates to me that I need to start from scratch and explain, in detail, what is an orange, what is an apple, and then draw a diagram to indicate their analogues in this discussion, but I really cannot be arsed.
            I would not give a toddler a steak knife. I would give a toddler a plastic knife. An accident might very well occur with the latter, but the degree to which I have been reckless or negligent is considerably less. Of course, knives and trains and cars are different things, as are toddlers and small towns and telephone poles. None of them make for useful, honest or illuminating comparisons with each other. All of this is so very, blindingly obvious I can’t wrap my head around what your objection to any of it could be.
            My initial response – with a commonly used aphorism a fair-minded reader would understand was not a literally-meant accusation of stupidity – was to counter the claim put forward above that the report that the train was “tampered with” was the same as it being “sabotaged.” At the time, it was the fire department that was being blamed for the brake failure, and I doubt anyone thinks they intended the train to explode, i.e. they did not act in malice, but may well have in well-meaning ignorance. That was the full extent of my argument, until you came along to try to make it about me and how
            I exercise my completely different responsibilities with completely different vehicles with potential consequences orders of magnitude different if I am lax, lazy or careless.
            All of that said, I do not know what level of responsibility for events the engineer bears, nor anyone else. I do not claim to know. I do know that “everyone makes mistakes” is, in the face of a destroyed town and dozens dead, a callous insult masquerading as platitudinous nonsense.

  3. I wonder if trains are equipped with a ‘black box’ like planes and vehicles are now? Event data recorders can collect much info before an incident if they are on locomotive or else investigators shift through rubble for clues presumably.

    • “We recovered the famous black box, and we also recovered what is known as the braking detection unit.”

      • “Use pipelines instead of trains? Or simply leave the oil in the ground?”

        I thought this was Wells’ ending, didn’t scroll down and I was thinking Wells left out a lot of info that would have been useful to his post. Now I have read the entirety of Wells post and I am much more informed.

        I assumed there would be an EDR on train but who knows.

    • They do Tony. The really strange thing is the company appeared to do everything by the book (train line bled out so the brakes were ON on each of the 70 tank cars and the head brakes set on the 4 locomotives). The only thing I might quibble with is why no handbrakes were set- I suspect you legally only have to set handbrakes on a locomotive-less cut of cars. Why they didn’t have to at Nantes (with a 0.7 % grade) seems odd.

      • Interesting – we shall find out what went wrong soon enough.

  4. Posted by Alberta Blue at the NP;

    A representative from the company
    told CTV News that the train was parked and secured in Nantes, Que.,
    just west of Lac-Megantic, late Friday night. The two town centres are
    about 12 kilometres apart.

    Joe McGonigle, a vice president at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic,
    said the train “came loose” between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. on Saturday
    morning and “started rolling down the tracks.”

    He said the train’s engine was found about one kilometre from where the explosions took place.

    The train’s conductor, who was at a hotel in Lac-Megantic when the train derailed, is being questioned by police.

    So who un-coupled the locomotive from the cars and who started it up after it was parked at Nantes.

    • Well, one can uncouple the cars, but the break in the trainline would then LOCK all the brakes in place on each of the 73 tank cars. Unless of course a sufficient number of cars had their reservoirs bled out- the weight of the brake-less cars could overcome the weight of the braked cars. It’s all really very strange.

      • It is strange, doesn’t add up.

    • Aliens.

      No really, what’s with the conspiracy stuff?

    • Uncoupling the locomovtive from the cars would completely release the pressure from the brake pipe wich would fully apply all brakes on all the cars. The only way they can run away in this situation is if there is not enough pressure in the cars tanks. One of the ways that could have been acheived is by starting up the motor then releasing the brakes then applying again until it has “pissed” most of the air pressure from the cars onboard tanks, then you would get no brakes. The air brakes systems on trains are very well designed and don’t just release by itself unless the engineer would not have pumped enough pressure in the onboard tanks before parking it overnight thus only appying the brakes partially. But there is information missing right now to solve that mistery but investigators are on site right now so we’ll give them time.

  5. Methinks the point of Wells article is that there is a lot of speculation going on by people who have no access to the many facts and evidence that are known or will be known over the course of the investigation. This disaster erased a huge swath of a small town and the cars are still hot. Let’s not jump to judgement here and second guess the series of events that led to the catastrophe. The train had previously passed through much of the most populated areas of southern Ontario and Quebec. It derailed in a relatively small community and caused abject devastation. Trains pulling oil pass through countless towns and cities every day. We need to understand what went wrong.

    • Police are treating the area as a possible crime scene.

  6. “in 12 years in the little town she’s never seen anything remotely approaching this catastrophe”

    Wow, that really puts it in perspective.

    • Now if she had lived 12 years in war torn Afghanistan, that would have been different. Maybe, what they meant to say was that in the 12 years in the town, there has never been ANY problems with the train or any significant accidents to speak of so the town’s people are not accustom to dealing with emergencies.

      • That would be a sensible thing to say and to quote.

  7. There are three possible causes for what happened: human error, mechanical breakdown, or deliberate sabotage. What puzzles me is why the locomotive was on fire at Nantes. That seems to be a very unusual event – how often do locomotives catch on fire? Why did that happen? Did that cause the brakes to fail and set the stage for everything that happened afterwards? After the firefighters put out the fire, did they notify the rail company? What was the response?

    • It was reported to be a diesel leak/grass fire, beside a wheel.

  8. The train that derailed on a Calgary bridge over the Elbow River post flood was carrying diluent in similar tanker cars.

    Five of the Canadian Pacific rail cars contain petroleum diluent, which is used to thin petroleum products, including bitumen from Alberta oilsands, for transporting through a pipeline.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/story/2013/06/27/calgary-flood-train-derailment-bonnybrook-bridge.html

    Not related, specifically, apart from the fact that this is increasingly a mode of transport over older infrastructure – this bridge built in 1912.

  9. Having worked years on the railway I can’t believe some of the fool coments coming from people ” in the Know “. Air brakes may leak off of one or two of the cars in that train over a COUPLE of DAYS, But it is impossible that all the cars in that train released on their own in hours, Air brakes left released on a sitting train, without the pressure being maintained by a running engine pump, which reports say was not running slowly loose pressure in the train line which applies the brakes, not release them. The only way the brakes on all the cars in that train would be able to release enough to get that train rolling is if someone manually went car to car useing the quick release valve, which is excessable from the ground, to release all the cars brakes. When who ever came to pull back the remaining cars left on the tracks, moving them, did they find any cars with the brakes still on?? If they used an engine they would have air to release those brakes. the engineer would have noticed if the cars still had air in them. Investigate!!!

    • “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak out and remove all doubt.”

      Abraham Lincoln

  10. Have they found anyone who saw the train in motion between the two towns. Can that person tell if they saw sparks from the wheels of the passing train. where the sparks from the front of the rolling train or the back or large number of cars. If there was only sparks showing under the first few cars, then the brakes had to have been manually released from the others. INVESTIGATE!!!

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