“Lac-Mégantic and MM&A Railway, a ticking time-bomb?”

This is a guest column; ‘Mihael Willman’ is the pseudonym for a concerned Canadian – JG.

Was the disastrous train derailment and explosion, which killed nearly 50 people and destroyed the entire downtown of Lac-Mégantic inevitable, a ticking time-bomb just waiting to explode? With each passing day, as the extent of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic became evident, and the events leading up to the derailment of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A) were made public, it became clear that blame for this disaster lies at the feet of several different entities.

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train which derailed in the village of Lac-Mégantic in the early hours of Saturday, July 6, 2013, consisted of five locomotives and 73 tanker cars, each with the capacity to carry thousands of litres of crude oil. While some of the oil burned up in the fire following the derailment, an undisclosed amount spilled into the local river threatening the water supply of communities down river.

Since railroads began to transport diesel fuel, and other dangerous or flammable materials, safety concerns have been repeatedly raised regarding the structurally flawed containers being used. The DOT-111A type tanker car (CTC-111A in Canada) is only one centimetre thick and easily punctures in collisions, even at low speeds. In addition, the ends puncture easily, while the valves break in rollovers. Both U.S. and Canadian government safety boards have repeatedly warned, since the 1990s, that is for nearly twenty years, that these tanker cars are unsafe.

Yet the oil industry has continually and successfully managed to oppose the implementation of more stringent safety measures. Following the penny-pinching policy of “as long as it works don’t fix it,” even if damaging leaks occur from time to time, the companies have avoided upgrading to the double-hulled containers or retrofitting the DOT-111A cars for the transport of crude oil. Even phasing out the older tanker cars, estimated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to number 175,000, is not acceptable to the oil industry. Cindy Schild, an official with the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, that the oil industry didn’t have any concerns about the safety of these rail cars, saying: “We have felt that the current standards for car design are adequate under normal operating conditions.” A position also maintained by Transport Canada.

What exactly does “normal operating conditions” mean? Accidents on railway lines have occurred and will continue to occur for whatever reason, problems with the tracks, mechanical malfunction of the locomotives or cars, operator error, unexpected collisions with wildlife or poor weather, to name just a few examples. Every possible contingency must be considered and prepared for. But it seems that the oil industry operates in a perfect world, where everything runs smoothly under optimal conditions, with the result that special safety measures are not required. And if a disaster on the scale of Lac-Mégantic occurs, it is explained away as an exceptional case, a “one in a million” occurence which couldn’t have been anticipated. In the quest for greater and greater profits, preparing for such a “one in a million” occurence just doesn’t appear to make economic sense for the oil industry’s number crunchers.

In 2009, a Canadian National Railway freight train carrying denatured fuel ethanol derailed at a crossing in Cherry Valley, Illinois, resulting in thirteen of the nineteen derailed tanker cars leaking and catching fire. A passenger in one of the stopped vehicles was killed and two others seriously injured, with another five people in other cars also injured. The accident report concluded that the accident was probably caused by the “washout of the track structure” discovered just before the train arrived and CN’s failure to notify the crew. The subsequent leakage and fire, however, was due to: “the inadequate design of the DOT-111 tank cars, which made the cars subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials during the derailment.” One of the safety issues identified was: “Vulnerability of the DOT-111 tank car shells and fittings to damage and subsequent release of lading during derailments.” The same kind of cars which carried the crude oil in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. Yet despite this American report, Marie-France Dagenais, director-general of transportation of dangerous goods for Transport Canada, reported that a Canada-U.S. risk assessment determined “that this was a good means of containment to transport that type of commodity.” In other words, double-hulled cars are not required to carry crude oil because it is not a dangerous or toxic substance.

Beyond the question of the safety of the DOT-111A cars, are other equally troubling questions. Just what caused the fire in one of the locomotives, less than five minutes after the engineer left the train in Nantes? Fires do not simply break out of their own accord, unless the equipment in question was faulty or not being properly maintained. Then, after the fire was extinguished, what caused the MM&A train to start rolling from Nantes towards Lac-Mégantic? Even if the firemen who extinguished the fire shut off the engine affecting the functioning of the air-brakes, this would not have affected the handbrakes which the engineer is reported to have engaged on the locomotives and ten rail cars. What caused the crude oil to explode and start burning within seconds of the train derailing in the town? And just how did the locomotives manage to separate from the tanker cars and end up reportedly undamaged, several kilometers away from the conflagration in the middle of Lac-Mégantic?

MM&A railway CEO Edward Burkhardt at first blamed possible tampering or vandalism by persons unknown, following the fire. Then he shifted blame to the firemen who responded and shut down the train engine. By the time Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Mégantic, a whole five days after the disaster, the engineer in charge that night was suspended, then fired, for failing to apply some of the hand brakes, even though the actual cause has yet to be determined.

When Burkhardt arrived in Lac-Mégantic he told the people that his company had a good safety record, this despite increasing revelations to the contrary. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board reports that MM&A had 23 accidents in 2003, 25 in 2004 and 33 in 2005. Though its accident rate supposedly improved from 2006 to 2012, falling to two to eight accidents per year, mostly equipment-related, U.S. Federal Railroad Administration records show that MM&A had 46 accidents between 2008 and 2012. In the first six months of 2013, it had eight accidents, of which seven were derailments, including a derailment near Lac-Mégantic in June, which spilled 13,000 litres of diesel fuel. Should this trend continue, the number of accidents in 2013 will exceed the rate of recent years.

This record is not particularly stellar with regards to safety, despite Burkhardt’s claims. However, if the accident rate is calculated per million miles traveled, then the MM&A’s accident rate is considerably higher than the American national average. While the national average in 2012 was 14.6 accidents per million miles travelled, the MM&A’s rate was 36.1. In the nine preceding years, its rate ranged from 23.4 to 56, while the U.S. average ranged from 15.9 to 19.3. Definitely not a safety record to be proud of!

Despite having such a spotty safety record, the MM&A managed to convince Transport Canada, in 2012, to allow it to operate its trains with only one engineer. Only one of two companies allowed to do so in Canada, the company managed to convince Transport Canada that they could safely operate with one crew member. This despite the fact that the Transportation Safety Board, in a 2009 investigation, stated that “the risk for runaway equipment is increased, because there is no opportunity for other crew members to identify and correct any errors” when a single crew member was responsible for securing the train.

When Transport Canada granted MM&A’s request to be allowed to have only one engineer per train, did no-one bother to study the possible ramifications? When transporting hazardous materials, even if the department does not consider crude oil to be a hazardous or toxic material, all possible scenarios should’ve been taken into account to ensure the safest conditions. Did anyone even consider what would happen if the sole engineer suffered a medical condition and either died at the controls or was physically unable to run the train? There would be no-one there to take control and ensure a safe resolution. No series of medical examinations can rule out or predict the possibility of a sudden medical emergency, even if the engineer is in the best of health.

During his visit to Lac-Mégantic, Burkhardt defended his company’s policy of having only one crew member, which he felt should not be changed. He even went so far as to claim that: “We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction.” How can a two-man crew increase the possibility for injuries? And just what kind of distraction could they get involved in? Was Burkhardt afraid that they might play cards, become embroiled in heated debates or intense conversations and forget that their primary duty was to control a train? If so, he must have a rather low opinion of railway personnel. A single crew member could just as easily become distracted or negligent as two. Where is the increased security there? Long known for his cost-cutting methods, it is clear that Burkhardt is more interested in the financial savings a one-man crew would bring his company, than any kind of concern for supposed increased safety. This became particularly evident about a week after the disaster, when MM&A laid off a quarter of its Quebec workers, most of whom conducted inspection and maintenance on the company’s rolling stock. The layoffs are supposedly temporary, according to company officials, until the line re-opens.

Burkhardt also claimed that “I think we followed normal industry practice, but the question is, is that normal industry practice adequate in today’s circumstances, particularly when you’re handling trains of flammable materials like oil?”

If cost-cutting is a normal railroad industry practice, then the MM&A certainly followed it. After Burkhardt bought the railroad in 2003, he not only reduced the work force, to what some consider a minimum level, but also salaries by up to forty percent. The necessity “to haul our costs down” was blamed on the financial meltdown. Today, the number of people employed by the MM&A per kilometer of track owned, is one third of that of either Canadian National or Canadian Pacific railroads. But cost-cutting is not limited to staff and salaries. For some time now, people living in and around Lac-Mégantic have been concerned about the condition of the railway tracks going through their town. Clearly investment in improving the infrastructure was not at the top of the list for the MM&A either. And with the growing transportation of crude oil along these outdated tracks, an overhaul was definitely a priority, or should have been.

The engineer has been criticized for leaving the train on the main line at Nantes, on an incline above Lac-Mégantic. I very much doubt that the stopover in Nantes was at the discretion of the engineer. As the man near the bottom of the company ladder, his obligation would be to follow orders unquestioningly. A look at Google maps seems to indicate that the side spur is not long enough to accommodate the 73 railway cars and five locomotives, so the engineer had no choice but to leave the train where he did. It would have been the responsibility of the planners at head office to determine the safest location to leave a train overnight. However, common sense, or just plain simple logic, would dictate that you don’t leave a train, especially one consisting of 73 containers weighing tons and carrying hazardous materials, on any kind of incline, especially one above a populated area.

The cause of the Lac-Mégantic derailment and fire has yet to be determined, a process which will take time. But there are more than enough indications pointing to what may have singly, or in combination, caused this tragedy to unwind. Cost-cutting measures which resulted in the one-man crew (a $4.5 million savings for MM&A), questionable condition of tracks and possibly even equipment, were probably the primary contributing factors which led to the sequence of events which resulted in the worst railway disaster in Canadian history. These decisions rest on the shoulders of the MM&A railroad and its owner and CEO Edward Burkhardt.

However, the Canadian government, in the form of Transport Canada, also carries some responsibility for allowing the conditions which led to the disaster to exist. Despite repeated concerns expressed by the Transportation Safety Board, concerning the use of the DOT-111A type tanker cars for the transport of dangerous materials or the use of one-man crews, it supports the oil industry’s position on the adequecy of these tanker cars.

Similarly, Transport Canada has no regulations prohibiting locomotives carrying such materials to be left unlocked, and especially unmanned overnight on railway sidings, though it does consider it “very unusual.” This practice is not allowed in the U.S. Similarly, there is no regulation against leaving trains on grades, no matter their size or the contents of their cars, so long as the brakes are properly engaged. Nor are there any restrictions as to the number of tanker cars carrying crude oil that any train can transport. In recent years, these numbers have grown as the oil industry tries to move as much crude oil to market at one time as it is possible to do, all in the name of cost efficiency.

In recent years, Transport Canada has allowed railway companies to regulate themselves! And we have all seen what happens when companies, such as the financial institutions in 2008, are allowed to regulate their activities without any governmental control. The responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety of its citizens. But increasingly it appears that the concerns of the corporations trump the interests and safety of the general public. Few people would argue against the fact that a favorable economic climate for business benefits everyone. However, public safety should supercede the profit-making interests of private corporations, especially when the consequences can be so devastating. And federal governments should be in the forefront to ensure that this occurs. Fortunately, the MM&A company is American. Had it been a Canadian corporation, we might have been witness to an added insult, namely that the position of engineer might have been farmed out to a guest worker, the company claiming that it was unable to find a Canadian worker qualified to do this job.


As a side note, it was particularly disappointing to see how proponents or supporters of various oil pipeline projects, within hours of the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, exploited the situation to promote the pipelines’ supposed safer method of transporting crude oil to refineries. This definitely was not the time for such comments.