In the aftermath of one of the deadliest disasters in Canadian railway history, Canadians may be surprised at just how common rail accidents are. In the latest statistical summary of what the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) calls “railway occurrences” 1,011 rail accidents were reported in 2012.
The good news is the vast majority of these were not main-track collisions or derailments, which accounted for only one and six per cent of the total respectively.
In fact, an incident as deadly as Lac Mégantic—where, on July 6, a 1.4-kilometre long train carrying crude oil from North Dakota to New Brunswick ran away and exploded leaving 42 people dead and another five missing and presumed dead—has not occurred since 1864 when a train plunged into the Richelieu River at St. Hilaire, Quebec killing 99.
That is not to say there have not horrific occurrences since. In 1979, 24 cars of a 106-car freight train, some carrying toxic chlorine derailed in Mississauga, Ontario. A propane tanker exploded and one of the chlorine cars ruptured released a cloud of deadly gas causing officials to evacuate more than 200,000 people for up to five days. Astonishingly, no one died.
The Lac-Megantic disaster, the fourth deadliest in Canadian history, levelled roughly half of the Quebec town’s downtown area and raised serious concerns across the country about rail safety.
As details of the accident trickled out in the days following, the people of the mourning town were outraged by the circumstances.
The engineer, the only crew member aboard, stopped the train on the main line 11 kilometres west of Lac-Mégantic near Nantes. He shut down four of the five locomotives leaving the lead engine running to keep air pressure supplied to the train’s air brakes. He also engaged manual hand brakes on all the engines and 10 of the 73 tanker cars. He then left the train unlocked and unattended.
It has been argued in hindsight that this was inadequate and unacceptable, but it was all above board according to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway’s standard procedures and work rules and Transport Canada’s regulations, although a spokesperson for the regulator said it was “unusual” to leave an unattended train parked on a main line.
And it may have been okay if it hadn’t been for subsequent problems that occurred after the engineer left.
At approximately 11:30 p.m. July 5, the Nantes Fire Department received a 911 call that a locomotive was on fire. Firefighters extinguished the blaze after shutting down the engine according to their protocol to prevent fuel from circulating into the fire.
The fire department left after being assured by MMA maintenance employees who had arrived on the scene that the train was safe.
It was not. Left unattended again, the train started rolling on the roughly 1.2 per cent downhill grade toward Lac-Mégantic. Early estimates by investigators indicated the cars may have been moving at more than 100 kilometres per hour when they reached a sharp curve smack in the middle of the sleeping town.
On July 23, Transport Canada announced an emergency directive with six new regulations including that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is operated by less than two qualified persons and that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is left unattended on a main track.
Two days after the accident, Ed Burkhardt, MMA CEO, said he believed the engineer had failed to apply enough handbrakes to the cars of the train, but not everyone was so eager to blame the employee.
“Please don’t be too quick to condemn the engineer of the train that devastated the community of Lac-Mégantic,” wrote Mike Hayes, a former CNR employee, in a letter published by the Windsor Star, July 29. “It has been a long time coming, and although I find it sad to say, we told you so. Oh, we could not tell you when or where but you have been told for years that with the continued reduction of the crew members on freight trains operating in Canada, it was bound to happen.”
The question is: could it happen here?
People in Yorkton are painfully aware of how much rail traffic goes through the city. With CNR tracks bisecting the city northeast to southwest and the CPR line crisscrossing that southeast to northwest, traffic delays are frequent and getting longer, particularly since the new deep water port opened in Prince Rupert, BC.
All things considered, though, the chance of something of the magnitude of Lac-Mégantic happening in any town or city is, and was even before the new regulations, low.
Nevertheless, preparing for the possibility of a catastrophic train derailment remains a top priority for Yorkton officials.
“It is our worst nightmare,” said Mayor Bob Maloney.
The City’s emergency response plan identifies the potential occurrence and impact of railroad accidents as high.
Unfortunately, there is little city officials can do proactively to prevent a Lac-Mégantic-style disaster, short of moving the tracks out of town, said Dean Clark, Yorkton’s fire chief. Railways are federally regulated so municipalities must rely on Transport Canada to set and enforce appropriate regulations and hope rail operators follow them.
In that respect, the regulator’s and rail companies’ records have not been great.
“The deregulation of Canada’s railway safety regulatory regime, which occurred in the late 1980s, making the railway responsible for its own safety, has not, and is not, adequately protecting the interests of the Canadian public,” concluded E. Wayne Benedict, in an article entitled “Canada’s Railway Safety Regulatory Regime: Past, Present and Future” published by the Transportation Law Journal in 2007.
To be fair, since that report was written at the end of a decade-long upward trend in railroad accidents, there has been a steady decline reported “occurrences.”
This is probably due to the fact that since 1997, Transport Canada started prosecuting railways under the Railway Safety Act (RSA).
Since 1997, CN has been prosecuted eight times in the past 16 years.
Small comfort to the town of Lac-Mégantic. MMA will likely be sued out of business, but some experts say the final cost of the disaster may top $1 billion and the company has already said it can’t even afford the .
Critics still say Transport Canada is not doing enough, however. Overshadowed by Lac-Mégantic, was the failure of a flood-damaged train bridge over the Bow River in Calgary at the end of June. Four petrochemical-laden freight cars derailed on the bridge June 27, but were successfully removed without injury or damage to the river.
Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum expressed anger with CPR CEO Hunter Harrison for callously saying it would be “jeopardizing commerce” to hold back trains until divers could get in the water to properly inspect the bridge.
NDP MP Olivia Chow demanded an investigation into the accident under the RSA. Transport Canada is currently waiting for a report by the Transportation Safety Board and promised it would not hesitate to take appropriate action if CP was breaking the rules.
It remains to be seen what final impact the Lac-Mégantic disaster will have on Canada’s rail safety regulatory regime. In the meantime, cities and towns across the country are crossing their collective fingers they won’t be the next statistic.