How suspect practices and policies helped fuel the Lac-Mégantic crash

Questions on the rail industry’s rules and self-regulation
Chris Sorensen and Kate Lunau
Lac-Mégantic, Québec: July 11th, 2013 -- The destroyed centre of Lac-Mégantic, Québec, July 11th, 2013. The small town of Lac-Mégantic was devastated last week by a massive derailment and explosion of a 72-car freight train carrying oil tankers. (Ian Willms for Macleans)
Runaway disaster
Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Early in the hours of July 6, a train made up of 72 cars filled with highly explosive fuel sat unattended on a steep hill, high above the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Somehow—whether it was a mechanical failure, or some freak occurrence, or an unforgivable act of sabotage—it broke loose. Within minutes, the train had picked up speed, and was charging like a missile straight toward this town of 6,000 people. At 1:14 a.m., having reached a speed of 101 km/h, it jumped the tracks in the centre of town, slamming into buildings and bursting into a massive fireball. Those caught in its path didn’t stand a chance.

Exactly what went wrong is now under investigation, but what is fast becoming clear is that Lac-Mégantic was a disaster long in the making. Trains are a familiar part of the Canadian landscape, rolling through towns and cities across the country. Few people bother to question what they’re carrying, or how they’re being run. When accidents do happen, odds are they tend to occur in an unpopulated area: in rail yards, sidings and spurs, where few people take notice.

But while railroads tout their own safety record, a close examination of the events leading up to the accident reveals an industry rife with suspect practices and policies, not the least of which is leaving an unattended train loaded with hazardous materials poised a few kilometres uphill from a town—with no one to watch it, no one to stop it and no failsafe mechanisms to alert operators if something went wrong. Others include the widespread use of outdated tank cars, whose walls are prone to punctures; a regulatory approach that leaves responsibility for ensuring safe operations to railroads themselves; and federal regulations that permitted Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) to operate a long and heavily laden train with a single engineer, a controversial practice.

With big oil companies increasingly relying on the rails to move their product, the stakes are becoming higher than ever. The Railway Association of Canada (RAC), which represents 50 rail businesses across the country, estimates that there will be 140,000 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail in Canada this year alone, up from 500 in 2009. (The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic was carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale development in North Dakota, en route to Irving Oil Ltd.’s refinery in Saint John, N.B.) The RAC stresses that, of the millions of carloads of dangerous goods transported each year, over 99.9 per cent are delivered without incident.


That obviously didn’t happen in Lac-Mégantic. For shell-shocked residents now looking for answers, a lack of basic information and finger-pointing in the days after the crash only contributed to the confusion. Edward Burkhardt, chief executive of Chicago-based Rail World Inc., which owns the MMA railroad, first suggested that local firefighters turned off the engine (and the train’s air brakes) following a first, small blaze that broke out. The fire chief responded with anger, while industry experts noted that if the train had been secured properly, disaster could have been avoided. When he finally visited the town earlier this week, holding an impromptu and sometimes awkward media scrum on the street, he appeared to have come full circle by laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of his engineer, who he said has been suspended. “I think he did something wrong,” Burkhardt told reporters. “He told us he applied 11 hand brakes, but our general feeling now is that is not true.”

Then, in another impromptu discussion with a Maclean’s writer over breakfast at a hotel in Sherbrooke, Burkhardt suggested that he had simply been searching for answers along with everyone else, and that several of his remarks had been misunderstood. “My intention is to try and get the facts,” he said. “And the biggest fact of all that we have to confront is that this train ran away.”

It must come as cold comfort to the people in Lac-Mégantic that critical errors, a lack of fail-safes, and compromises on safety led to so many deaths (24 confirmed so far) and so much destruction. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has launched an investigation, as have police. But the larger picture is emerging: Lac-Mégantic could conceivably happen again, in any number of towns or cities across Canada.

Spectacular freight train derailments have happened before, but rarely have they resulted in such dramatic loss of life. Twelve per cent of the railway traffic in Canada is considered “dangerous goods,” according to the RAC, which has a response team that conducts inspections and audits of railway yards, terminals and offices. Yet what happened in Lac-Mégantic seemed more like something out of a Hollywood film than real life. “I wondered what was in those tank cars,” says Rosa Galvez, an expert in hazardous waste spills at Université Laval who was staying at a chalet in Lac-Mégantic with friends when the crash happened. The TSB will only reveal that the train was carrying petroleum crude oil, but it may have been diluted with a substance like benzene, which, Galvez notes, is “very volatile and highly flammable.”

Investigators are still piecing together what happened. So far, this much is known: the train stopped late Friday night in the town of Nantes, about 12 km uphill from Lac-Mégantic. A lone engineer secured the train on the main track, not a siding (a legal but not common practice), and then left it waiting for another crew while he retired to a nearby hotel. A short time later, a local resident spotted a fire on board one of the five locomotives, which was quickly extinguished by the local fire brigade. Early on Saturday morning, the unmanned train rolled down the tracks, flying off the rails.

As for why the train was left unattended in the first place, Douglas Finnson, vice-president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents 16,000 Canadian railroad workers, says it’s not uncommon for train crews to leave an idling train parked in a rail yard or on a siding—even on a steep grade in the mountains—for a few hours during a shift change. But he says it’s unusual “that a train gets tied down and an engineer goes to bed.” It’s also unusual for a train to be left on a main track, according to Transport Canada officials, but there are no specific rules against it. Nor are there, as incredible as it may seem in this day and age, any federal rules against leaving a locomotive cab running and unlocked.

What regulations do require is that stopped trains must be sufficiently secured before they’re left unattended, usually by engaging some or all of the brakes on individual cars. “You apply it by hand,” Finnson says. “Every rail car has one. It’s a big wheel with a mechanism and chain that’s hooked up to the brake system.” The weight of the train and its load, as well as the steepness of the grade it’s parked on, determines how many hand brakes must be applied. Finnson says it’s also common to leave the diesel engines running, since they supply power to a compressor that keeps another braking system working.

In his interview with the CBC, Burkhardt initially suggested that shutting down the engine disabled the air brakes that night, implying that this system alone held the train in place. “Eventually it will leak down and the brakes will release. That’s what happened.” However, Finnson says that according to normal procedure, hand brakes—not air brakes—are paramount. “Of the four [types of] brakes, when you’re parking a train, the only one you rely on is the hand brake,” he says. He was also shocked to learn the train was being operated by a single engineer, noting that it could take over an hour to secure all the hand brakes on up to 72 cars. “There’s usually a conductor. If you’re working on a train there’s a lot of stuff to do.”

Beginning a few years ago, the money-losing MMA embarked on a controversial program to cut the number of crew members on each train from two people to one by using a remote-control device. The system allows a single engineer to control multiple locomotives, and often includes on-board cameras to allow the lone operator to view both sides of the train while it’s in operation. MMA president Robert Grindrod told the Bangor Daily News in 2010: “Obviously if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you are saving 50 per cent of your labour component.”

Transport Canada officials confirmed that they granted MMA approval to use the system last year as the Maine-based railroad prepared to handle a flood of crude oil headed to refineries on the East Coast. But the firm’s safety record has been called into question. In 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s rate was 36.1 accidents and incidents per million miles, compared to a U.S. national average of 14.6. Burkhardt says the company’s safety record is in line with other small railroads. Luc Bourdon, the director of rail safety at Transport Canada, says the railroad demonstrated to the regulator that it can operate safely, with just one person at the controls. He added that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway has been using the system for more than a decade.

With no one to stop the train once it started gathering momentum, the only thing left between it and Lac-Mégantic was 12 km of track. On some of the busier rail lines in Canada, there are sensors and signals to alert rail-traffic controllers of a runaway train. But there were none on the track in question, Donald Ross, the TSB’s lead investigator, later told reporters.

Hot weather would have increased pressure inside the tank cars before they sped down toward the town, jumped the tracks and piled on top of each other as they kept rolling. To create an explosion, says Gregory Patience, a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, “you need a fuel, an oxidant, and an ignition source.” As the tank cars ruptured and spilled oil over a large surface area, the contact with oxygen would have increased, he says. Metal on concrete produces sparks; sparks could have ignited the hydrocarbon vapours, producing an explosion.

To make matters worse, the tank cars involved in Saturday’s blast were an older model, called DOT-111 (CTC-111 in Canada), that can each carry more than 105,000 litres of fluids. As far back as the ’90s, Canadian officials have warned that these cars—which have relatively thin walls—are more likely to leak in a derailment. In 1995, a Canadian National Railway (CN) train derailed 28 cars near Gouin, Que., releasing 230,000 litres of sulphuric acid (no one was injured). In a subsequent report, the TSB noted that all the tank cars involved were Class 111, “known to be susceptible to product loss at derailment.” Keith Stewart, energy policy analyst for Greenpeace Canada, notes that about 70 per cent of all Canadian tank cars are made up of this model.

Speaking to reporters on July 9, Ross said the TSB had advocated for a stronger version of the 111-class cars; although, given the breakneck speed of the train when it derailed in Lac-Mégantic, some wonder whether it would have made a difference in this case. (CN and Canadian Pacific, Canada’s two major railways, declined to comment. Burkhardt of Rail World could not be reached earlier this week.) Marie-France Dagenais, Transport Canada’s director general in charge of dangerous goods, said during a briefing this week that a risk assessment was done by the regulator in conjunction with its American counterparts, and that the existing 111-class cars were “determined to be the best way to transport this type of commodity.”

Greenpeace’s Stewart believes the government should ban the use of older, weaker tank cars for carrying petroleum products, and review the oil transportation system. “They have to do something,” he says. “The question is whether they treat this as public relations, or a public safety problem.” Considering that these cars make up the majority of the fleet, it’s unlikely rail operators would voluntarily make a massive investment in an upgraded model.

Lac-Mégantic has also put a spotlight on a national rail system governed by a complex web of rules and regulations that vary by railroad type and the cargo involved. In part, that’s due to Transport Canada’s decision to move in 2001 to a regulatory model dubbed “safety management systems” that effectively asks railways to develop their own safety policies and procedures, which are then audited by regulators. Bourdon says that in the past year, the agency had inspected 511 of MMA’s cars, 37 crossings, 827 km of track and 20 locomotives.

Ian Naish, a rail-safety consultant and former TSB director for rail and pipeline investigations, says the approach works well in theory, providing that everyone from maintenance workers to the CEO is on board. “You have to have a buy-in from every level of the organization,” he says, adding that the Lac-Mégantic disaster would undoubtedly lead to much “soul-searching” in Ottawa.

The accident also occurred at a delicate moment for the rail industry. Just a few months earlier, representatives from railroads, government and petroleum producers gathered at Ottawa’s Fairmount Château Laurier to discuss the suddenly big business of hauling crude oil by train. With Alberta’s oil sands booming, and key pipeline projects like the Keystone XL bogged down by controversy, several producers are looking to move the gooey black bitumen by rail to refineries on the East Coast and into the U.S.

Cenovus Energy Inc., based in Calgary, moves about 6,000 barrels per day by rail (still a small amount of its total production, which amounts to more than 180,000 barrels per day). It plans to boost that number to 10,000 by the end of this year, and 30,000 by the end of next. Rail “can reach niche markets that aren’t connected by pipeline,” explains spokesperson Rhona DelFrari, and solves the problem of pipeline congestion. In addition to conventional crude, the company is planning to transport oil-sands bitumen by rail, using specially heated and insulated cars. The derailment in Lac-Mégantic is tragic, she says, but there’s a risk associated with moving products using any mode of transportation. “We feel that [rail] is a safe way to move product.”

A recent study done for the industry by consultant Malcolm Cairns, formerly of CP Rail, also found the risks acceptable. “Both modes of transport are remarkably safe, and rail is certainly not more dangerous than pipeline,” he says, adding that the data he used for his comparison came from the U.S. (he had difficulty securing Canadian numbers) and doesn’t include rail accidents that involve dangerous cargo like chlorine gas and sulfuric acid that pipelines don’t carry.

So why do accidents involving oil and gas products still seem to happen with alarming frequency? In May, five CP tank cars containing oil derailed near Jansen, Sask., with one car leaking crude; it was the company’s third spill in two months. Last month, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi lashed out at CP after another of its trains, carrying a petroleum distillate, derailed over the Bow River following the city’s massive flood. Garland Chow of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business likens the situation to the ongoing pipeline debate: “[Pipeline companies] have to prove the risk isn’t there, and that they have the resources to mitigate an accident.” Railways have been criss-crossing Canada for centuries, he says, but if they’re going to be transporting more oil, maybe it’s time for them to do the same.