In Lac-Mégantic, the investigation begins -

In Lac-Mégantic, the investigation begins

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

(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?


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.”