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Lac-Megantic: Apocalypse by Rail

by on August 3, 2013
This Montreal Maine and Atlantic train is situated at the location where the train involved in the July 6th tragedy was left idling

This Montreal Maine and Atlantic train is situated at the location where the train involved in the July 6th tragedy was left idling

Five locomotives, 72 rail cars laden with crude oil, and a lone employee in charge of the entire train. Frankly, I’ve seen kid’s outdoor lemonade stands staffed by more people.

The rest, unfortunately, is history. A fire breaks out in one of the locomotives, and the local fire department responds and extinguishes it. The rail employee retires at a nearby hotel after a 12 hour shift.

The abandoned Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic train is left idling on an incline, breaks free, and gathers speed as it rolls downhill into the town of Lac-Megantic, where it derails, explodes, and vaporizes part of the downtown core.The disaster claims the lives of dozens of people who never had a remote chance of escaping the ensuing inferno so violent that its image was captured by a NASA satellite. Some may never be found.

About 2000 residents are forced to flee their homes, and crews searching the aftermath of the rail disaster are forced to endure horrific conditions. “The conditions are absolutely awful, and they’ll continue to be,’ said Michael Forget, an investigator with Quebec’s provincial police, during a news conference with reporters at the time.

Days later, loved ones and friends remain unaccounted for, homes destroyed, businesses gone, and life in Lac-Megantic is forever altered.

 Journalists visit the scene, and are left stunned and weeping, unprepared for the sheer magnitude of the destruction that awaited them, despite being warned by the long-time spokesman for the Surete du Quebec, Lt. Michel Brunet of the severity of what they are about to witness.

Pope Francis sends a special Vatican blessing to those touched by the tragedy, along with his sympathies, Queen Elizabeth II publicly expresses profound sadness. U.S. President Barack Obama offers his condolences for the “devastating loss of life,” as well as America’s help, if needed.

 July 6, 2013 will forever mark the date of what may well be determined to be the darkest day in Canadian railway history.

The agonizing death toll mounts steadily in the days and weeks since. A town mourns, and a nation reels as the details surrounding the catastrophe emerge. Many are angered by what they hear.

Personally, I have been deeply moved by the strength of character, determination, and sense of community that remains in this shattered town.

The Quebec government announces $60 million in provincial funding for those displaced from their homes by the rail disaster, and for emergency aid, while acknowledging that this sum would not cover all the costs associated with the rail disaster, saying more money would be added over time.

Flags are flown at half mast in both Quebec, and at the federal parliament buildings in Ottawa. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois openly criticizes the railway’s response to the plight of Lac Megantic, calling it “a completely deplorable attitude from the company.”

As emergency crews continued to search for the remains of the people killed in this accident, the coroner’s office requested that those missing loved ones turn in personal effects such as toothbrushes, combs, and razors in order to provide DNA to help identify the bodies of those who lost their lives in the aftermath.

“In one way or another, we’re all affected,” said resident Bianca Fillion.

“This may well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history,” said Wendy Tadros of the federal Transportation Safety Board.

To the folks of Lac-Magantic, you have my profound respect, and my sincere condolences.

To the railway industry, this accident has shocked the nation and underscored why change is imminent and necessary, and now, more than ever, it’s time for a new social contract between rail, communities, and governments, on all levels. It’s time to review and update existing infrastructure, particularly given the massive growth in the industry.

Lac-Megantic, I believe, will be the tragic, long-overdue catalyst for change in addressing regulatory, environmental, and societal shortfalls.

And that is precisely what this blog is all about, and what has inspired me to write once again… 


The Rail Company’s Response – A Disaster in Itself

Edward Burkhardt, head of the Chicago-based Rail World and the Chairman of the Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic found himself facing a barrage of criticism for waiting close to five days to travel to the affected town.

Rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with the townspeople left in shock after the accident, Burkhardt opted to spend the first five days in his office, saying he could do more with insurance companies, engineers, and the media there.

Burkhardt also initially defended the fact that the entire train was staffed by a lone employee.

“We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less distraction,” he claimed.

Burkhardt  also said that the train engineer was following standard “industry practice” when the rain was left running and unmanned, but subsequently added that those standards now appear to be inadequate and rules will need to be changed going forward.

Thankfully, regulatory authorities haven’t waited for any more back-peddling by the railway, and have already acted, banning one-man trains. Transport Canada has also since placed new restrictions on unattended trains left on main tracks.

The railway’s response to the disaster had been an epic fail in terms of public relations.

Cracking Jokes in the Midst of Tragedy

It didn’t help that Burkhardt had joked prior to his arrival in the devastated town that he might need a bulletproof vest.

He further attempted to crack a joke with reporters once onsite, who were walking backwards ahead of him to capture his image. “Walking backwards is very dangerous,’ he said. “We’re having a conversation about safety and you guys are doing something very unsafe right now.”

Given that the MMA train rolled backwards into Lac-Megantic, I don’t think that I’m the only person who found Burkhardt’s quip both tactless and in the poorest of taste.

Railway Initially Points Finger at Fire Department

The rail company did itself no favours and won itself few allies when it initially pointed fingers at a local fire department for turning off a locomotive that it had just finished extinguishing a fire on, and depriving the airbrakes of power.

Burkhardt suggested firefighters shut the train off as part of their efforts to put out the small fire, unknowingly releasing the air brakes and setting into motion the events that led to the horrific derailment. “The locomotive had been tampered with, that is definitely true. Admittedly, it was the fire people who tampered with it. Now were they negligent in their tampering, I think not,” said Burkhardt.

The railway was quickly forced to do an about face, with Burkhardt saying that he didn’t think that the town of Nantes fire department did anything “malicious” and that there was “no sabotage.”

I’m certain that I am not the only person who was offended by the mere suggestion of such a sinister act by the brave men and women who regularly put their lives on the line in order to help rescue and protect the rest of us. To cast such a light on our firefighters is truly reprehensible, and an unsettling light into the psyche of a company whose first line of defence was deflection. 

Railway Brass Heckled

With a considerable delay taking place before his actual arrival, and with sometimes outrageous statements from rail company executives being made, Burkhardt found himself the target of hecklers and a lightning rod for anger in Lac-Megantic over his perceived flippancy about the tragedy and plight of the town.

Burkhardt finally started to sort out some basic priorities, stating that “we’re going to try and help out in every way we can with this community through the city and the Red Cross to do our best to meet our obligation to make repairs and put people back in their homes and things like that.”

Burkhardt noted that his company will “do what we can, but we can’t roll back time.”

Police Raid Railway Office

Shortly after, Quebec provincial police raided an office belonging to the railway at its Farnham branch. “We’ll be in Farnham as long as it takes to gather all the evidence we’re looking for there,’ Inspector Michel Forget told reporters. “We will work with other police forces – either outside the country or in Canada – to conduct the necessary raids.” “For the moment there are no other raids…other organizations are investigating and I’ll let them comment on that.”

Railways Are Not Pipelines!

The Lac-Megantic disaster underscores the perils of shipping hazardous goods by rail, and, in this case, oil in particular, through populated areas.

“This is a huge risk to our communities, rail lines go through the heart of communities across this country, as well as along our major waterways,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

Compounding the risk, Stewart added, is the fact that many rail companies move oil in cars known as DOT-111 tankers. These cars, most commonly used to transport crude oil in Canada, have a history of puncturing during accidents. These were the exactly the type of cars involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster.

PM Stephen Harper referred to railroad transit as being “far more environmentally challenging” than pipelines.

The risks associated with shipping oil by rail have been thrust squarely into the public eye. It very much is not “business as usual.”

A 28000% Increase by Rail

An eye-popping 28000% increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail over the past five years is now coming under scrutiny.

A U.S. Study concluded that transporting oil by pipelines was, by far, the safest mode of shipment when compared to other options, and rail has a higher carbon footprint, because it takes diesel to move trains.

This is not mentioning the other rail “albatross,” namely the amount of noise pollution this industry creates that all too often impacts communities negatively.

In short, in my opinion, the infrastructure is not in place to ship oil by rail in terms of equipment, potential safety concerns, environmental questions, and unresolved noise and vibration concerns for resident stakeholders.

In an online article, July 29th, 2013 by CTV News, “Safely Moving Oil By Rail Requires Extraordinary Measures: Experts,” it’s stated that “the sort of disaster that struck Lac-Megantic may thankfully be rare but the consequences are so grave when serious derailments involving oil do occur, extraordinary measures must be taken to prevent them, say proponents of stricter protocols.”

Collateral Damage?

The same CTV News online article states that “The Railway Association of Canada says 99.9977 per cent of all dangerous goods shipped by rail reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident. It adds that the oil spillage rate is lower for railways than for pipelines.”

Note to the Railway Association of Canada: Lac Megantic is part of that very .0023%. Did whoever who dredged up this little nugget attend the same charm school as Edward Burkhardt?

Those who study catastrophes also agree that the numbers don’t tell the whole story…

A Whole New Kind of Safety Threat for Communities

Again quoting from the same article: “A major derailment of a train carrying large quantities of oil is what disaster experts call a low-probability, high-consequence event. In other words, it’s not likely to happen, but if it does the fallout may well be devastating.These are totally different from other types of train crashes,” said Ali Asgary, an associate professor of emergency management at York University in Toronto.

“The rail industry has a very good safety record compared with other modes of transportation,” said Manish Verma, an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, Ont.

“But that means only so much when dozens of tank cars filled with oil are passing through a community.” Even if something minor happens, the consequence could be very, very huge,” he said.

Previously a train might have a handful of tank cars carrying chlorine or other such hazardous goods, notes Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Canada. Now a train might have scores of cars transporting oil to a refinery.

“That’s relatively new, and it’s a lot more dangerous because the consequences when something goes wrong are much higher,” Stewart said.

“I’d look at it as loading the dice in favour of disaster.”

Emergency Orders to Railways Issued

“Last week, in a preliminary response to the Lac-Megantic derailment, Transport Canada issued a series of emergency orders. From now on, at least two crew members must work trains that carry dangerous goods. In addition, no locomotive attached to a tank car filled with dangerous materials can be left unattended on a main track.

But those concerned about the hazards of transporting oil by train say much more must be done.

Among the suggested solutions: ensuring the tank cars used to move crude oil will not easily rupture, giving trains with large amounts of crude priority in order to avoid unnecessary stops and delays, diverting trains carrying oil away from towns and cities, and shielding populated areas by reclaiming land around tracks or building barriers to protect people.

Verma acknowledges that altering routes to avoid populated areas would be expensive, but says it should be a collaborative effort between rail operators, governments and regulators.

Asgary fears the possibility of an oil-fuelled derailment fire in a large city.

“We should look at the worst-case scenarios when we are dealing with these type of activities and how we can handle them — or if we can handle them, really.”

Healing a Community – A Call for Accountability

Many of the Lac-Megantic residents are calling for the rail lines at the centre of the tragedy to be moved out of town. Hundreds of residents signed a petition demanding that trains be diverted accordingly. “Whether we are listened to…I don’t know. But we’ve already lost too much,” said resident Annette Bilaudeaux.

A solemn memorial service held after the disaster packed the town’s Ste-Agnes Church, attended by volunteers, mourners, and dignitaries. Residents watched the service outside in the street from two giant screens.

Thousands outside of the church greeted the attending dignitaries with applause.

But the loudest applause was saved for a group of uniformed firefighters.

One of those dignitaries was Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who described the town’s downtown core as a ‘”war zone.” After the mass, Harper said that it had been an emotional day. “It is still very difficult to fully absorb this when you see all of these families who have been so terribly affected.”

Frustration is at a boil with the rail company, with reports that locals have been throwing rocks at passing trains owned by the railway.

It’s of note that, only two weeks earlier in an unrelated incident, the railway had spilled 13,000 litres of diesel oil into the environment 5 km east of the town after a locomotive’s diesel tank was perforated.

Monitoring of Rail, Tighter Insurance Requirements Needed

Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders want Ottawa to set up a monitoring system to track trains carrying hazardous materials and tighten insurance rules in the wake of the Lac-Megantic disaster.

The final joint statement from the premiers noted that there was a “clear lack of information” on hazardous materials travelling by train.

Provinces have the right to be fully informed about what’s moving through their jurisdictions, said British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. A system providing real-time data on the location and content of such convoys would help communities protect themselves.

“That transparency, that information is important,” she said.

Insurance requirements for railroad companies must also be sufficient to cover the damages caused by accidents, the premiers said.

It’s a key provision, because insurance companies will demand that rail companies operate safely or they won’t cover them, said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.

“If you have to bear the costs of the risks of transporting your goods in an unsafe fashion, you have an incentive to do it safely,” he said. “And if you don’t do it safely, you’re going to be broke.”

Who Pays the Bill?

The railway now says that it doesn’t have the cash to pay for the torrent of post-disaster expenses headed its way.

The chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway says the company is now depending on its insurers to start cutting cheques and he has raised doubts publicly on whether the company will even survive.

In the end, says one expert in civil responsibility, taxpayers could be stuck with a bill in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Laval University law professor Daniel Gardner says he highly doubts MMA has enough coverage to absorb the massive, combined financial liabilities of damages like environmental cleanup, emergency-crew salaries and lawsuits.

Derailment Costs Spiral Out of Control

In fact, Gardner believes the Lac-Megantic derailment could have more financial consequences than any other land disaster in North American history.

“The whole cost of this will be far closer to $1 billion than to $500 million,”  adding he would be surprised if the railway had a total of $500 million in coverage.

“What will probably happen? …The company will go bankrupt, insurance coverage won’t be enough.”

Will Amos, director of the Ecojustice law clinic at the University of Ottawa, points out that this accident has exposed weaknesses within existing regulations and legislation, noting authorities have restricted access to assess the extent of oil spilled into nearby waterways, as well as limited ability to ensure that polluters pay for the damage they cause.

“We need a full review of federal legislation regarding all forms of spill liability,’ he said. “We need a comprehensive review and strengthening of those provisions because, at present, the Canadian taxpayer is not fully protected.”

Two Industries, Two Standards – Why?

Indeed, the federal government has set a very public standard that pipeline companies be able to cover up to $1 billion in costs due to ruptures and oil spills, in the forms of insurance, lines of credit, or financial assets.

No such similar standards exist for addressing rail disasters.

In the light of the Lac-Megantic disaster, it’s time for that to change. Communities and governments should not be left footing the bill for catastrophic rail accidents, and the regulatory playing field between railways and pipeline companies should be leveled.

Further, railways often refuse to disclose the limits of their liability insurance. When recently asked by media, CP Rail spokesman Ed Greenberg said that the railway had no comment, CN Rail spokesman Mark Hallman said that the company does not disclose its insurance policies because they constitute “confidential business information.”

Canadian railways are required by law to carry enough liability insurance to cover the cost of accidents from their operations, but there are no set federal regulations for minimum or maximum limits regarding the amount of coverage that a railway must carry.

The consequences of this for communities is becoming increasingly clear.

The Mayor of Lac-Megantic, said that her municipality has already sent its second lawyer’s letter to MMA, telling the railway it must shell out for mop-up costs that have nearly doubled in just a few days — from about $4 million to almost $8 million, while concerns about the railway’s potential bankruptcy loom.  

Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche alleged that that railway failed to pay crews it hired to clean up some of the millions of litres of crude that seeped from damaged oil tankers into the environment, contaminating soil and nearby water bodies, leaving the municipality to cover the railway’s tab.

Asked if he thought MMA could weather the financial storm, Burkhardt replied: “Well, that’s very much under consideration right now.”

Put This Under Consideration as Well

The problems associated with shipping oil by rail could not be made any more clear than by the tragic events in Lac-Megantic.

The very minimum owed to the citizens of Lac-Megantic in the short term is simply a gesture of respect in diverting rail lines around the town, as they’ve already requested. Surely, they are owed that.

In addition, the whole question of having train carry hazardous goods through populated areas needs to be publicly addressed. Frankly, given the growth of this industry, it’s time to take a very long look at updating the infrastructure currently in use, with the objective of diverting more rail lines away from where people live. The potential consequences of keeping the status quo in place are now all too clear.

A Moratorium Needed on Shipping Oil By Rail

It’s time to place a moratorium on any further expansion of shipping oil by rail until the necessary infrastructure in terms of rail lines, their proximity, and equipment used, has been upgraded, keeping communities as safe as possible, and protecting the environment.

Dot-III tankers used to transport oil need to be either upgraded and repaired, or replaced altogether to reduce their risk of puncturing during an accident. This, in itself, is a long-overdue, massive undertaking.  

It’s a step forward that, as a result of the Lac-Megantic disaster that new restrictions on unattended trains on main lines have been introduced, as well as defined minimum requirements for braking systems.

However, these new requirements still fall short of what is needed.

The fact that locomotives can still be left idling and unattended at all – anywhere – remains an outstanding and serious concern, a public health concern in many locales, and now, clearly a public safety issue.

Public Health and Safety is Non-Negotiable

The locomotives at the heart of the Lac-Megantic disaster were left running, and unattended. Could this disaster have been averted or mitigated had there been railway employees onsite? It’s a terrible thought, but one that must be considered.  

The practice of abandoning idling locomotives, anywhere, with or without a train, without any onsite supervision, is completely ludicrous, and must stop.

If a train must be left running, it must be attended. If locomotives by themselves need to be left running, they also should be attended – in addition to having a clearly defined distance away from residences in which to do so.

Want to leave an engine running and abandon it? Secure it in an idling shed.

If locomotives, with or without a train are left running – anywhere – they must be attended, and, exactly where this can take place – in consideration of public interests, must be clearly spelled out once and for all by regulations to protect the public, the environment, and to make railway practices safer.

Insuring the Future

In the end, it might be the insurers of the rail industry who drive the advancement for change in the industry, possibly with as much clout as our regulatory authorities.

Given the stratospheric costs that are emerging in the wake of the Lac-Megantic catastrophe, undoubtedly the insurance companies are going to be taking an even closer view of their exposure to risk with their railway clients.

At the same time, given the uncertainty of how large of a bill taxpayers may have to pick up to help pay for the rail disaster, federal officials may well be reviewing the requirements for the rail industry’s liability coverage.

A further option might be to have all railways in Canada contribute to a disaster fund that can be drawn from by any contributor in the case of a catastrophic event in the future, to assist with costs given the likelihood of escalating insurance premiums proving prohibitive for some rail companies.

However, sandwiched in between both the insurers and the regulators is the opportunity for decisive and meaningful change.

Move a rail line out of a populated area? Get a break on insurance premiums. Upgrade equipment? Get a break. Secure idling locomotives with either an onsite presence, or in a designated building? Get a break.

Do none of the above, and pay more, based on risk.

Hopefully, after the massive sum that Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic’s insurers pay out, the insurance industry will look at their railway clients a whole new way.

And that might just be the break that communities and the environment need as well.


Sources for this article, and extensive quotations, include the following:

CTV News Online –July 9, 10, 11, 14, 25, 29, 2013

The Vancouver Sun – July 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 24, 2013

Metronews, July 8, 2013

Wikipedia: Lac-Megantic derailment

Top Photo: By Peter Akman, CTV News

Below: CP Photo, July 9, 2013, Paul Chiasson 

Lac-Megantic rail disaster

  1. Walter Pfefferle permalink

    <quote.Hopefully, after the massive sum that Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic’s insurers pay out, the insurance industry will look at their railway clients a whole new way.

    And that might just be the break that communities and the environment need as well.

    And put small railroads out of business and thousands of more poorly maintained diesel burning smoke belching trucks on the roads. Good solution. Lac Megantic was a terrible disaster but not reason to reinvent the wheel. A Rail & Reason thinking this is not.

    • trainjane permalink

      Hello Mr. Pfefferle,

      “Lac-Megantic was a terrible disaster but not reason to reinvent the wheel?”

      You’re kidding, right?

      Tell that to the people of Lac-Megantic. I am shocked by your disregard and callousness for the people of that community, and what they’ve gone through. People died, Mr. Pfefferle.

      You are absolutely correct in stating that Rail and Reason does not think the way you do. Thank you for at least stating the obvious.

      The shockwaves from this rail disaster are continuing to ripple through the various levels of government and regulatory agencies, and the public, and will continue to do so for some time.

      A lot of hard questions are being asked that are not going to go away just because they are inconvenient and uncomfortable for rail interests; for people such as yourself, directly affiliated with the railway industry through Ontario Southland Railway.

      My opinion: Lac Megantic will be a game-changer for the railway industry. Time will tell.

      An example? The prospect of the railway or its insurance possibly not being able to cover the damages it caused poses a very serious problem that has not escaped the immediate, and very the public attention of elected officials.

      Here’s a few additional statements that were made at the recent Premiers meeting that I referred to in the blog post:

      …Provinces and territories expect a “higher standard of care from corporate entities,” said Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

      …”Insurance requirements for railroad companies must also be sufficient to cover the damages caused by accidents,” the premiers said.

      (Source: “Premiers want to monitor trains carrying hazardous materials,” July 26, 2013, CTV News, online edition)

      I realized during the course of writing this post that this could have significant implications for smaller railways in Canada who simply may not be able to purchase the requisite insurance with the benchmark for liability that the Lac Megantic tragedy may eventually set.

      I believe that governments and communities will insist on enough coverage, especially if the taxpayer gets left footing a large part of the bill.

      That’s why I suggested this in the post:

      “A further option might be to have all railways in Canada contribute to a disaster fund that can be drawn from by any contributor in the case of a catastrophic event in the future, to assist with costs given the likelihood of escalating insurance premiums proving prohibitive for some rail companies.”

      The idea here is that all railways purchase a certain pre-determined (and publicly stated) amount of insurance, that won’t put smaller companies out of business, while everyone (rail companies, that is,) contributes on a sliding scale of sorts to a central fund to cover the shortfall in the event of another catastrophic rail disaster.

      I happen to think that competition is a good thing. We need some solutions to help smaller rail companies be financially self-sustaining, accountable, and yet viable in the wake of this disaster.

      This is a rail company problem; the taxpayer is not the solution, and I would suggest that there will be little public sympathy for the plight of the railways, given the alternatives.

      If a solution is not found, we could otherwise end up with only two rail companies in Canada, the two “big fish” – CN and CP – which are more in a position to absorb the expense of increased insurance, while swallowing up companies like Ontario Southland Railway like nothing more than a snack.

      I suggest it’s time to get off the soapbox and to start thinking outside of it – quick.

      • Andrew permalink

        So where were the people of Megantic when Via Rail service through their town was cut?

        The reason why what happened in Megantic happened is that all levels of government treat rail like crap!

        • trainjane permalink

          Really? You’re criticizing the people of Lac Megantic?

          As to your accusations of fault, I prefer to wait until the investigation of this tragedy has been formally concluded rather than to speculate on the cause of something so serious by pointing fingers and allocating blame.

  2. Lara permalink

    This is an incredible piece!!!

    Lara ryan-murphy construction inc.

    • trainjane permalink

      Thank you very much for your positive feedback!

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