Letters: ’One-man train crews are a penny-pinching move and not safe or productive’

Maclean’s readers on Lac-Mégantic, High River flooding and sick days
David Charron

Runaway tragedy

What a brilliant cover image, featuring a statue of Jesus in front of the flames of Lac-Mégantic. Is the Christ figure offering help to stupid mankind who can create such chaos, or predicting Armageddon? This is one of the great apocalyptic images of our time. Kudos to the photographer and to Maclean’s for sharing it with us.

Bill Plumstead, North Bay, Ont.

Your story on the rail disaster (“Runaway disaster,” National, July 22) was factual and to the point. As a locomotive engineer for over 30 years with CN and Via Rail, I have left trains unattended many times over the years—however, only under very explicit instructions from the company and the train dispatcher, and never on the main track for more than 20 minutes. The train brake must be applied, handbrakes applied on the locomotives, and they have to be locked and the switches turned off and reverser lever secured. I am sure the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) will do a good job with the investigation. I attended a safety seminar two years ago, where Don Ross, now the TSB investigator in charge of the Lac-Mégantic case, mentioned the concern they had with the structural integrity of the tank cars in question. One-man crews are a penny-pinching move and not a safe or productive one. It doesn’t sound feasible to have no one to help with switching and for checking manifests and communicating with track authorities. I was shocked to learn that they operated this way and that the government allowed them to do it.

John Coughlan, Riverview, N.B.

Your July 22 cover headline, “Unforgivable,” was succinct and entirely correct. As an air-traffic controller and, briefly, a rail-traffic controller, I have seen first-hand the differing approaches to safety management within different modes of the transport industry. Regardless of the operator, a modern Airbus or Boeing has a crew of two (or more) pilots, to provide a cross-check for every significant action. Two pairs of ears listen to instructions from air-traffic control, and two pairs of eyes watch and check as the required figures are dialed up on the autopilot.

The main role of a train conductor is as the load specialist, in charge of the railcars; the engineer is in charge of the locomotives. However, the conductor also provides a cross-check when the train passes a signal, and when reading the daily bulletin orders, which tell the crew of speed-limited track, work parties and other operating restrictions. When trains pass at sidings, it is standard practice for the crew of the stationary train to inspect the moving train as it passes. It takes a crew of two to inspect both sides of a moving train. And of course, when it’s time to tie up a train, it isn’t just quicker to have two people applying handbrakes; the conductor and engineer should both calculate how many brakes to apply and then check each other’s work to ensure it’s been carried out correctly.

Maintenance, of both track and equipment, costs money. The rail industry as a whole needs to cease its endless obsession with cost-cutting. It’s a race to the bottom, and anyone who lives near a rail line is a potential victim. Of greater concern to me is that, from what I observed a few years ago, the standard response from rail management to a safety breach is to fire or otherwise discipline the employee responsible. In response, employees have a vested interest in covering up safety breaches and incidents that don’t result in accidents; the industry fails to learn the lessons of incidents in which no one is killed and no property is damaged.

Airlines operate according to a “just culture,” whereby unintentional breaches of safety standards are not punished as long as they are reported. This gives the aviation industry the opportunity to learn from even the most minor of incidents.

There’s an old saying in aviation: If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident.

James Johnson, Dubai, U.A.E.

I applaud you on your insightful editorial, “Don’t blame oil for the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic” (From the Editors, July 22). It was indeed an interesting perspective. What train could possibly be deemed 100 per cent safe? Scientifically, money should first be spent in areas of train construction, design and maintenance that address the most statistically common reasons for train derailment. The fanciful wish to make trains indestructible would be prohibitively expensive. Very inexpensively, let’s start by achieving 100 per cent safety in a train that is supposed to be 100 per cent safe: a parked train!

Robert Graham, Claremont, Ont.

Setting the sick-day record straight

The article “The sick day scam” (Business, July 8) suggests that sick-leave entitlements won by various components of the public service are abused by the vast majority, if not all, of the workers. This is absurd. A full-time federal government employee earns 1.25 days of sick leave per month. This time is utilized not only when a person is ill, but also must be used for ongoing dental and medical appointments. The federal government says there’s an accumulated sick-leave liability of $5 billion; what they didn’t say was that not too long ago they encouraged employees to bank enough sick-leave credits to get them through to long-term disability should they ever need it, which has a waiting period of 13 weeks. Also, there is no benefit to accumulating sick days other than as insurance, should anything seriously affect your health. There is no payout upon leaving the public service and there is no provision to use sick days for early retirement. They are there if you are sick—period.

Don Rogers, President, Canada Employment and Immigration Union, Ottawa

A little nudge

That was a fascinating article about the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron’s “behavioural insight team” and how it will be trying to ensure citizens pay all of their taxes through little nudges (“Nudge of character,” International, July 22). Your article neglects to mention whether such tactics have been—or will be—used against companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Vodafone, which apparently have highly questionable tax practices in the U.K.

Greg Ashton, Toronto

Aspects of “behavioural economics,” now employed by David Cameron, have been used for years by salespeople, i.e., “Would you prefer that I call you back on Tuesday, or would Wednesday be better?”

Tim Alderton, Red Lake, Ont.

The spirit of High River rises

Thank you, Emily Senger, for sharing your story about your family home in High River, Alta. (“Waiting out the flood,” National, July 15). I also grew up in High River and have many of the same memories as you, floating down the river on inner tubes, biking my summers away on many of those streets and parks. I had to watch and read everything happening from my home in Los Angeles, as my sister followed and took photos for the Calgary Herald. We are fortunate as my sister, aunt and other friends and family have all been deemed “orange.” My thoughts are with friends, family and the residents of High River. My hometown.

Connie Cartmill, Los Angeles

My heart is with Emily Senger’s family and all the families in tremendous distress. High Riverites are so appreciative and even hopeful. One bucket of mud at a time, kids hauling handfuls of slimy crap, people arriving from all over Canada and the U.S., sandwich volunteers, the Red Cross, church volunteers who have flocked into town in their hundreds with highly appreciated crisis-project-management skills are flooding in after the water, structural engineers wandering up the driveways to offer their expertise—the list goes on. I witnessed traffic jams of people arriving to offer their hands, feet, backs, strength and hearts. I have been privileged to work alongside dozens of kind-eyed volunteers these past few days as they wade through slippery sewage and mud. Keep coming. Every day sees a little more hope.

Colleen Doylend, Calgary

Canadian compassion

A quote in your Alberta flood report, “Down, but far from out” (National, July 15) caught my eye: “Shelters within Calgary were never very full of evacuees because of the abundance of private generosity.” We had that same experience during eight days without power during the ice storm of 1998 here in Osgoode, Ont. Our neighbours invited us into their homes for the first two days, then relatives took us in for the duration in Ottawa. We should never overestimate the abilities of government to save us in such trying moments of crisis, or underestimate the giving spirit of our friends, neighbours and family. That’s what truly makes our society work in good times and bad.

Joe Banks, Osgoode, Ont.

Loss of property, loss of freedom

Ken MacQueen’s closing sentence in his article about accused eco-terrorist Rebecca Rubin (“Playing with fire,” Special Report, July 15), which says that “no one lost their freedom because of Rebecca Rubin except [her],” is abysmally ignorant of the result of having your property, life’s work and safety of activity invaded and destroyed by anyone, especially the criminally minded so-called do-gooders in this case. Ask those who have experienced it: security and freedom has fled, for at least a period of time, even to ruining a life.

W.D. Doyle, Calgary

Don’t follow the leader

Canadian political parties should heed the advice in your editorial (“How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under,” From the Editors, July 15). Preston Manning, the Reform party leader in the Commons in 1993, perceived the need for greater participation by backbenchers such as I, but was naive in his attempt to effect it. For example, he did not, at first, take his seat in the front row of the House. Stephen Harper was in our caucus, and you can be sure that he took notes on what not to do. When another Reform MP, Dave Chatters, and I got into trouble with the Canadian news media in 1996, we were suspended from caucus. One month later, caucus and party members expressed their opinion at the annual convention in Vancouver by giving the two of us a standing ovation. The public kerfuffle that occurred in the meantime might have been avoided if the caucus had had more power. Compromises were needed. Your editorial suggestion that we look closely at what the Brits and Aussies are doing is a good one.

Bob Ringma, Oxford Mills, Ont.