Report on Quebec train disaster downplays main cause

by Rob Holmes
Posted 8/21/14, 02:30 pm

A year after a runaway oil train exploded near the Maine border with Quebec, the investigation report released this week cited 18 contributing factors. But amid conclusions for mitigating safety and human risks, the report downplayed the obvious: An engine fire in a parked train led to an air-brake failure, setting the train on an unmanned 7-mile journey and leading to the death of 47 people in Lac-Megantic. 

Six million liters of light crude oil spilled and ignited downtown Lac-Megantic, leveling 40 buildings and pouring oil into the lake and nearby Chaudière River. It marked the end of the line for a train that had already transited seven major U.S. and Canadian cities, including Minneapolis, Chicago, and Montreal.

“Accidents never come down to a single individual, a single action, or a single factor,” said Wendy Tadros, head of Canada’s Transportation and Safety Board (TSB). “You have to look at the whole context.” 

But the TSB report placed much blame on the train’s owner, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways, which went bankrupt after the disaster. It claimed the most glaring factors were the rail company’s cutting corners in regard to safety, along with the Canadian government’s failure to conduct safety audits of rail transporters. “MMA did not provide effective training to ensure crews understood and correctly applied rules governing train securement,” the report concluded.

A TSB press release on the accident contended there is a need for “additional physical defenses to prevent runaway trains, and for more thorough audits of safety management systems.” In bureaucratic fashion, it linked the tragedy to “systemic problems” and detailed how light crude oil may ignite at a lower temperature than heavy crude. 

Only a month after the 2013 disaster, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration reacted to the incident by ordering new rules for securing unmanned parked trains as well as issuing non-binding advisories for oil transporters in the United States. The U.S. Department of Transportation then echoed the Canadian TSB report by alerting transporters to the potential high volatility of crude from North Dakota’s Bakken fields and Canadian oil sands. 

In April, Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said tankers such as those involved in the Quebec accident must be retired or retrofitted within three years due to being prone to rupture in accidents. And she directed Transport Canada to immediately develop concrete steps to meet the TSB report’s safety recommendations. 

The crash is the worst rail accident in Canada in almost 150 years and it has kindled public pressure for safer oil transport.  

In May, Quebec prosecutors charged Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Canada Co. and three of its employees with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death. Class-action lawsuits are on the horizon.

John Giles, CEO of Central Maine and Quebec Railway, which acquired the assets of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Canada, said his first move after taking over the railroad in May was to cease operations for two days to talk about safety with the company’s U.S. and Canadian employees. 

Giles said his safety improvements include eliminating one-man crews, hiring a senior superintendent for Canadian operations, and retiring old locomotives. The company is budgeting $8.5 million to overhaul track and will delay further crude oil shipments until 2016.

Positive Train Control (PTC), a bundle of technological systems for remote-control prevention of train accidents, is a statutory requirement for U.S. rail companies to implement by 2015. Despite an ever-greater push to rely on such risk management systems, even Obama administration officials have testified that its benefits do not justify its enormous cost.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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