10 Years After the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, Are Canada’s Rails Safe?

OTTAWA – Its near-silent approach proved the fiery death it was bringing.

Rapidly accelerating until it reached 65 mph, the train carrying 63 tank wagons full of light oil rolled downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, a popular tourist town east of Montreal, without any problems. any crew members on board sound a warning or attempt. to prevent it.

At about 1:15 on July 6, 2013, when the ghost train ran into the town center, the tank wagons separated from the locomotive and derailed. The result of the explosion of six million liters of oil Kill 47 people in Lac-Mégantica community of 5,600 people and burned most of the downtown area.

The disaster on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad was the deadliest rail accident in Canada in 149 years. It has set off alarm bells in a country where mile-long trains carrying oil, explosives and toxic chemicals roll relentlessly through the heart of some of the largest cities and dozens of smaller communities. , many of which were created by the arrival of the railroad.

Similar concerns were raised in the United States after a freight train derailed in Ohio, sparking a fire and prompting authorities to intentionally release toxic fumes to neutralize burning cargo.

However, despite repeated calls in Canada for a special investigation into disaster and rail safety in general, no investigation has been called. And a decade later, many rail safety experts say the changes to the rules and the way railways are managed are not doing what is needed to avoid a repeat of the devastation – the consequences, they say. of the decline of the railway industry.

“There have been a lot of steps taken since Lac-Mégantic,” said Kathy Fox, chair of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, the country’s accident investigation agency. “But those are all administrative safeguards. In other words, they depend on someone following a rule or procedure.”

She added: “What we have called is physical defense. “Definitely very frustrated, disappointed. I guess you can use different words as we see how long it might take to solve some of these problems.”

The Association of Canadian Railways, an industry group, did not respond to a request for comment.

Bruce Campbell, an associate professor of environment and urban change at York University in Toronto, who has written a book and several reports on environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto. Lobbying by the rail industry and shippers, especially the energy sector, continues to delay measures that could prevent future accidents. Huge disaster.

“That’s important whether it’s in Canada or the United States,” Mr Campbell said. “They all coordinated their actions a lot to limit regulations and dilute them so that they cannot be properly enforced.”

While the preliminary investigation into the East Palestine, Ohio derailment determined the cause of the bearing overheating, mechanical failure was just one of a series of factors that led to the deadly Lac-Mégantic crash. .

Canadian Traffic Safety Board establish that safety measures are sketchy and that staff fatigue is common in Montreal, Maine, and the Atlantic, a shabby regional railroad that receives goods in Montreal from its Pacific Rail Canada, one of Canada’s two main lines and the principal operator in the central United States, owned the first line until 1995.

Today, downtown Lac-Mégantic remains largely a vacant lot. Longer and heavier trains pass even more often Through town on rebuilt tracks.

The train that plunged into Lac-Mégantic a decade ago had only a single crew member parked uphill about 7 miles from town when his shift ended.

In the first of a series of error, the engineer, who later testified feeling exhausted when the work was done, failed to apply an adequate amount of handbrake on the carriages, an arduous task, as he left the train in the night and took a taxi back to his hotel.

After the engineer left, a small fire broke out in the locomotive of the oil tanker that spewed out all day. After it was extinguished, the firefighters, on the recommendation of the railway industry, shut down the locomotive, another fatal fault. Without the force of the locomotive, the train’s separate air brake system gradually loses its force, rendering the handbrake system ineffective and rendering the train inoperable.

A recommendation that was quickly implemented across the country was to replace the tank wagon models used on the Lac-Mégantic trains with new or retrofit models that were designed to be sturdier should they derail.

Ian Naish, former director of rail accident investigations at the safety board, said evidence from derailments since then suggests that new tank wagons have hardly proved more resilient.

“The bad news is that it seems that if you derail at speeds greater than 35 mph, there is no guarantee that they can continue to hold the product,” he said. “As long as you want to keep the trains rumbling along the tracks at a relatively high speed, if a derailment occurs there is a good chance that a leak, a fault or a fire will occur.”

Ms. Fox said the railroad had failed to absorb another transport board’s safety recommendation: that the railroads add chemicals to explosive goods to reduce the likelihood of catching fire during transit.

Nor did they heed the agency’s call for an electric parking brake on trains to replace the handbrake, which is often not tightened and has not changed significantly in design since the 19th century.

The demolition of Lac-Mégantic led to rules requiring railroads to have licenses to operate like airlines and develop a safety management system, but Ms. Fox said her agency was concerned about its safety. adequacy of those plans, as well as the effectiveness of their oversight by Transport Canada, the railway regulator.

Transport Canada is “in the process of updating its railway safety management system regulations” and has increased rail inspections to about 35,000 per year from 20,000 in 2013, Nadine Ramadan, press secretary to the transport minister, said in a statement.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster led to the collapse of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad.

In 2020, Canadian Pacific, the original owner of the service, purchased it as part of a program related to the expansion of the container port in New Brunswick.

The railway has spent C$70 million on new tracks, rail connections and other improvements to the once-crumbling Montreal, Main and Atlantic line, said Andy Cummings, a spokesman for Canada Pacific. This route increased the number and size of the trains it transported.

The dispute over the railway bypass that would divert trains away from the Lac-Mégantic center has delayed the reconstruction of the city center. Meanwhile, the rumbling of trains still instills fear in a community where few people know that someone has died from a fiery derailment.

“We don’t feel any safer,” said Gilbert Carette, a member of the people’s rail safety group formed after the shipwreck. “I think it’s a betrayal of companies that don’t improve rail safety.”


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