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.