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Lac Mégantic Could Have Been Saved, if the Train Had a Conductor

We spoke to a train conductor who says if the train that barreled towards Lac Mégantic was properly staffed with a second conductor to help test the brakes, this awful tragedy could have been avoided.
July 11, 2013, 3:54pm

A stopped train in Lac Mégantic. Photo by Jean-Francois Hamelin.

The devastating and deadly series of explosions caused by a runaway train that derailed in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, has exposed some  troubling issues within Canada's rail industry. Despite an increase in business coming from the oil sands, our railway companies appear to be understaffed. And now, it appears that the tragedy in Lac Mégantic could have been avoided if there was a second conductor on the train that exploded last week.

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The death toll in Lac Mégantic reached 15 on Tuesday evening, but that number is expected to rise to nearly 60 people based on the number of missing persons reports that have been filed with police. It’s a gruesome thought but many believe those missing persons may have literally been vaporized by the blast.

The oil boom coming from the Alberta Oil sands has resulted in a massive surge in railroad traffic, as oil companies are desperately trying to ship their product across the continent for processing. With very few options for delivering oil out to the refineries, the Canadian railway is flourishing with oil business. Unfortunately there are some significant problems—which people are only waking up to now—concerning the tracks, some of which are over a hundred years old and are now being given a second chance at life. There is also the problem of understaffing among the crews hired to transport this oil in the first place.

There are 73,000 km of train tracks in Canada and recent estimates from the Canadian Railway Association are suggesting that carloads of crude oil, just like the one that exploded in Quebec, has risen from 500 carloads in 2009, to over 140,000 carloads this year alone. That’s an insane leap in activity, especially considering many of these tracks were built over a century ago. Yet despite this huge jump, some of Canada’s biggest railway companies, such as Canadian Pacific Railway, are continuing to lay off staff and cut corners when it comes to inspections and staffing crews safely. It’s a disturbing trend given how many trains full of crude oil are currently being run through Canada’s cities and towns.

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In December 2012, CP Rail, one of Canada’s biggest railway companies, announced they would cut 4,500 employees. Given that there was no one available at CP Rail to comment on the cuts, we got in touch with a conductor at CP Rail who agreed to speak with VICE Canada under the condition of anonymity. Let’s call him Aidan.

“CP Rail laid off 50 carmen alone in the last six months. These people are responsible for inspecting the brakes. Meanwhile there is way more traffic on the railways than ever. The more people you cut back the more dangerous it’s going to be. I have to test those brakes on the train now and I’m the conductor. That’s not right. A conductor would never have to do that before. They have totally exploited a technicality in the rulebook and are now making us do each other’s jobs.  Now I have to inspect the train—such as performing brake tests—which is crazy because it’s obviously not my specialty,”

Aidan says the two most serious problems with the railway are cutbacks and increased travel. “As the years go by and the technology gets better, they are replacing people with technology. You’ve got way less people operating the trains and less people inspecting them, but with more cargo being moved than ever before, they’ve literally created a perfect storm for something like this to happen. I’ve run trains with as much as 18,000 tones of oil over 30 million pounds of train. They are monsters. They are heavy—you can’t stop that quickly once it’s gone out of control.”

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The train that exploded in Lac Mégantic, owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, had stopped for a crew change and somehow got loose.

Some people have speculated that this disaster could be the result of one man’s negligence and that man has now become the subject of a criminal investigation and police have said there are "sufficient grounds to lay charges." Ed Burkhardt, head of the train’s US-based parent company, is blaming the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly. While most train companies (even the increasingly cheaper big rails like CN and CP Rail), have a mandate that requires two people to run the train, the train that exploded in Lac Mégantic was only manned by one person. “That’s all MMA’s mandate requires inside the caboose,” explained Aidan.

“So they are inspecting the black box, which will be able to help them determine whether or not he tested the brakes,” said Aidan.  He explained that there are hand brakes inside the train that needed to be applied.  The black box will provide evidence of whether or not the locomotive engineer tested them, but won’t be able to tell if he used enough, which he says on a train this size, that had 73 attached cars, needed to have at least ten brakes applied.

“There is a chance he didn’t use enough [brakes], and there is a chance he didn’t test them, which would be really bad. The problem is still that there should have been another person there. If you had a second man there, the conductor, he could stand back, tell engineer to ‘test the brakes’ and watch as the train shoved back. The conductor could then determine if [the amount of brakes used] was enough to hold the train or not. Having one person do both is just like a short cut—it’s not an effective means of doing the test.”

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Aidan says it would be very hard to operate and secure a train with just one person and that this issue is indicative of how poorly the rail industry is being run in Canada. “My job usually requires me to be responsible for the entire train, alongside an engineer. Together we work to ensure everything is going right. In the past there would have been three of us. It would be very hard for one person to do all these jobs.”

But this type of “short cut” and short staffing is happening at everywhere, not just at Maine, Montreal & Atlantic.

A representative at the Railway Association of Canada said they were not ready to give interviews this week on what happened in Lac Mégantic, or how the railways are regulated.  Instead they referred me to a press release, regarding Lac Mégantic, on their website signed by RAC president, Michael Bourque. It states: “We wish to reassure North American communities that railway operations are safe and our track record of handling regulated commodities is excellent.”

Unfortunately, 2013 has already been marred with several rail incidents. In March, a Canadian train derailed in Minnesota causing 76,000 litres of oil to leak. In April, 20 freight cars, including two that were carrying light sweet crude oil, went off the tracks near White River, Ontario. And in May, Saskatchewan had to deal with a freight train that jumped the tracks and spilled more than 91,000 litres of oil into the earth.

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Given this string of deeply troubling incidents, it is no surprise that eight months ago, CP Rail employees were given instructions not to talk to media about anything. CN Rail has similar instructions in place.

Clearly there needs to be more stringent regulations placed on the Canadian rail industry. With over 37,000 highway/railway crossings in Canada, nearly half of those are regulated by the federal government while the other half is mostly privately self-regulated by companies like Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. According to Canadian Press, Transport Canada says there are "no rules against leaving an unlocked, unmanned, running locomotive and its flammable cargo on a main rail line uphill from a populated centre."

“The federal government controls the entire railway system and has not made any real adjustments in regulation since the massive boom in business. Because all railways are part of Federal jurisdiction, you will never see anyone from the municipalities working on the tracks. They basically ignore it, because it’s got nothing to do with them and the federal government provides bare minimum, especially when it comes to inspection.”

If we’re going to be hauling crude oil all over Canada, increasing employment seems like the practical move—but that’s exactly what our rail industry is not doing. “We definitely need more people working on the trains. It doesn’t matter if the train is going through a small town or rural areas—it’s still carrying the same cargo, that’s the problem. It’s what the train is shipping, not where it’s traveling.” Which comes back to the issue to regulation.

Canada is growing. Even remote towns like Lac Mégantic have more than just farmland around the tracks. “This could happen anywhere. This train was traveling through downtown Toronto just a few hours prior to the crash.”

Evidently Canada is left with a damned if we do, damned if we don’t scenario when it comes to moving our crude oil around the country. There is no safe way to transport this dirty, explosive, leaky black gold given the amount of pipeline spills and anti-pipeline activism this country has been dealing with recently. We are, however, in a position where we need to transport more of it than ever before. Clearly there is a serious lack of regulation in the rail industry. It truly seems like there is no way to avoid disaster while also maintaining the oil industry that Canada’s economy now relies on so heavily. All we can hope for are tighter regulations and smarter development to be put in place as soon as possible, while the rail industry hopefully tries to catch up with the growing increase of oil production in this country. Previously:

Impressions from Lac Mégantic