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It’s Time to Rethink Shipping Hazardous Freight by Rail Through Communities

by on May 29, 2014

It’s time to put the people first.

That’s the message that I have for Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau, who is defending the protracted length of time it’s taking to arrive at a decision about whether or not to reroute the rail line around the town of Lac-Megantic, rather than continue running the railway through the centre of it.

Moreau argues that all aspects of the issue need consideration. My opinion is that this issue is so far past that point that to even think about continuing to run a railway through the centre of town is beyond comprehension.

Running Freight on a Scar Through the Middle of Town

The fact that rail traffic has already temporarily resumed on its old route through the town, rather than around it, well before a decision has been reached has been a source of worry for residents.

“They’re saying that this is temporary until the detour track can be built, but we’re worried it will become permanent,” said Marilaine Savard back in December of last year. Savard, who is a spokesperson for the group Comite Citoyen de la Region du Lac-Megantic, continued to say that “several million dollars were spent to rehabilitate the track. If they really had good faith, they would have invested in a detour right away.”

Lac-Megantic has seen part of its downtown core obliterated, lost scores of its citizens, and endured the infuriating attitude of the railway’s chairman, Edward Burkhardt, who painted himself “also a victim” in the tragedy.

Adding insult to injury, the railway – Montreal, Maine & Atlantic – carried only a fraction of the insurance that was required to cover the massive costs for the damage caused, and subsequently went bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. Now sold to Fortress Group, the continuation of the railway is assured, but the well-being of residents is not.

Railway Not Welcome to Return

Municipal officials and residents have spoken loud and clear that they do not want the railway back. Lac-Megantic’s mayor, Colette Roy Laroche, has stated that the “human factor” must be considered as many of the townspeople were traumatized by the accident.

According to Laroche, “Our citizens have been greatly affected by this tragedy. Almost a year later, we’re really seeing the consequences and the impacts.”

Says Savard on the issue: “I’d say the majority of people don’t even want to hear the chugging of a train. We’re hoping there will be a recognition of that psychological distress that citizens are suffering.”

Calls to Charge “the Right” People

Healing and closure is only being made even more difficult for residents given the recent charges against three rail employees in connection with the rail catastrophe.

After a recent court appearance by the three accused, resident Diane Poirier, who lost two nephews in the accident commented that “when those men walked by, I didn’t feel any animosity toward them. To my mind, it is their boss who is responsible. He took his time coming here. I didn’t like the attitude of that man at all. But I don’t blame them (the rail employees) at all – maybe they lacked training.”

“I believe there should be charges, but for the right people,” said Danielle Lachance Champagne, whose daughter died in the disaster. “The big boss – he should be first. He was the big boss of the MMA and he came here with this attitude like he wasn’t affected by what happened, by all those people whose lives were lost.”

Lachance Champagne says lives have been turned “upside down” and “changed forever.” “We want justice. We want to know that it can never happen again, but it will.”

These are heartfelt, astute observations by two people directly impacted by the tragedy, and I concur with them completely.

I feel that there is no need to list the names of the employees who were charged, to show their pictures, or the homes in which they live, as some media already has. To do so, in my opinion, serves only as a distraction – a detour – around the real issue, which I feel is rail practices themselves.

Change, Not Scapegoats Needed

I do not believe that the three rail employees charged in connection with the Lac-Megantic disaster should serve as scapegoats for the much larger problems in the rail industry that came together like a terrible but perfect storm on that fateful evening last July.

We now know that a lot of the crude oil that has been shipped by rail over a substantial length of time has done so in tankers with a known defect. How was this ever allowed to continue? Even the labelling method identifying the nature of the crude involved in Lac-Megantic fell short of what information first responders needed to fully understand the dynamics of the firestorm they faced. A crew of one on the train itself…questions about the conditions and maintenance of the tracks in and around the town…parking a loaded oil train on a hill and leaving it unattended…the list goes on and on.

Communities Concerned With Growing Risks

There are growing calls from local governments and the public for increased transparency about the hazardous goods, including oil, being transported through their communities – as a result of Lac-Megantic. Rail infrastructure has been thrust into the spotlight, with the public jolted out of any previous sense of complacency held prior to Lac-Megantic.

The conditions under which rail employees work continues to raise concerns as well. Too few crew, too tired, too often – that’s my opinion.

And lastly, the wisdom of regularly transporting hazardous freight by rail, whether it be crude oil, gas, or other chemicals such as ammonia or chlorine – through the centres of towns like Lac-Megantic or major cities is also being debated as more and more people become aware of the alarming risks involved in keeping the status quo.

Get Out of Town!

Rerouting of freight around the town of Lac Megantic is necessary. It’s the most basic gesture of respect, of ensuring safety, and of goodwill. Nothing less is acceptable given what this town has been put through.

It’s also a precedent, and one that worries the railways. It’s an issue that the rail companies might have been able to previously detour around the public, but no longer.

It’s time to re-evaluate rail routes and procedures not only in Lac-Megantic, but in the many Canadian communities whereby hazardous goods are routinely handled by rail to meet the best interests of both public and rail safety.

Our worst rail tragedy should serve as a catalyst for change for the better of an industry and a country.

                                                             xxx

 

Sources for this article include:

CTV News, online edition, “Committee studying whether to have rail line running through Lac-Megantic,  May   26, 2014

Vancouver Sun – “Residents say no to trains,” December 19, 2013, “Residents demand ‘right people’ be charged, May 14, 2014, Railway boss ‘also a victim’ of train disaster, December 28, 2013

 

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4 Comments
  1. Walter Pfefferle permalink

    Why does the NSB not monitor and investigate the trucking industry but only rail, air, pipeline and marine? I bet there are more trucking accidents per mile that any other form of transportation. A tanked full of propane, gasoline or acid exploding can do a great deal of damaged and kill many people and trucking accidents happen everyday on our major highway without anybody jumping up and down to move them out of towns and cities.Here are the US stats from 2008. It seems we don’t keep them or share them in Canada. The number of trucks on our street keep increasing with less experienced drivers behind the wheel

    In the US 2008, the preliminary national crash facts were as follows:
    123,918 large trucks and 13,263 buses involved in non-fatal crashes
    49,084 large trucks and 7,123 buses involved in injury crashes
    73,047 injuries in crashes involving large trucks and 16,760 injuries in crashes involving buses
    74,834 large trucks and 6,140 buses involved in tow-away crashes
    2,609 large trucks and 11 buses involved in hazmat (HM) placard crashes

    I am sure the number in Canada are comparable. Lac Magantic was terrible but is not something happening everyday. it is only a matter of time before a tanker truck blows up in a city.

    People are the ones demanding oil, home heating fuel, gasoline and propane and the railways are just meeting that demand so they only have ourselves to blame for the huge increase in rail traffic.

    • trainjane permalink

      Don’t you mean TSB, not NSB? And why the TSB does not monitor the trucking industry probably has something to do with the oversight of motor vehicle and licensing facilities, and ties to the insurance agencies on provincial levels. Why not just ask? I bet there are more trucking accidents per mile than trains as well. That’s because there are more trucks, for starters. But most trucks don’t measure out in lengths over a mile long. That can have a significant bearing, if you are going to keep comparing one industry to another. It also skews the comparison as it has been recognized that train accidents involving hazardous cargo can be far more severe than those in the trucking industry as there is exponentially more volume involved. Your argument is an apples-to-oranges comparison. As rail freight increases, so does the possibility of an accident; no industry can have a 100% safe operation but the problem is, that rail accidents, especially with the massive increases in oil shipments, these tend to be far more serious.

      The trucking industry, despite its problems, has not had a “Lac Megantic” despite the massive volume of trucks on the road. And that says something, Mr. Pfefferle. What is really frightening, though, is how few crew can be utilized to run a long train.

      Rail has cut far too much, and now, the public is very much concerned with rail transportation in particular. Rail earned that negative spotlight, and will have to make a great deal of positive progress to gain back public trust. Very few want oil trains after Lac Megantic. It’s up to rail to heal that rift.

  2. Public trust in the safety of rail transport suffered yet another blow July 30, 2014 when a single car derailment occurred within the town boundary of in Spences Bridge. No one was hurt in the accident. The derailment was relatively benign owing to the fact that it was carrying only dry goods. The question on many people’s minds is, however, what would have happened if it had involved flammable or caustic materials.

    A local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, observed two weeks ago that an unusual sound was coming from this portion of the track. He did not approach the railway with his insight, trusting instead that their own inspection team would locate the problem and fix it.

    Photos of the derailment are posted on The Rattler at http://www.therattler.ca

    • trainjane permalink

      Dwayne, was there any information made available about the track condition in that location? It’s disturbing to think of what could have happened if the freight was flammable or caustic, given the concern about wildfires in that region. Great photos, by the way. I wasn’t aware of the issue with the bridge, as I’ve passed through there from time to time.

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