Lac-MéganticThe trial of three rail employees blamed for the deaths of 47 people when a train carrying 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil derailed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic is in its second week. Three former employees of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), Thomas Harding, 56, Richard Labrie, 59, and Jean Demaitre, 53, are being tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each of the victims of the rail disaster.

The un-manned train began to roll after a fire caused by mechanical problems in the lead locomotive which was shut down after the fire was extinguished. The government (or “Crown,” this being Canada) is arguing that Harding (the engineer and sole crew member) didn’t set enough hand brakes on the train, Labrie, the rail traffic controller, didn’t confirm that enough handbrakes were set, and Demaitre, the manager of train operations, didn’t verify that the train was secure after the fire was extinguished and the lead locomotive was shut down.

I have written about this tragedy here, and how workers are being blamed for what is clearly a failure of management to establish and enforce safe procedures and a safety culture at the railroad. MMA has since gone bankrupt.

Despite the indictments, not everyone is convinced that the right people are on trial. One town resident, Jean Paradis, who narrowly escaped the explosion and lost three friends in the incident, seems to get it:

He says he doesn’t want answers from the three men on trial; he isn’t happy that MMA executives are “in the States. They’re with their money” and not facing questions in Quebec.

“Transport Canada has let those cheap companies run railroads for less money, for making more money instead of acting for security for people,” Paradis told Global News.

Jean-Paul Lacoursière, a chemical engineer at the Université de Sherbrooke also found that others were to blame — namely rail management:

“It appears from the TSB report that the company has tolerated improper braking practices, did not provide appropriate braking practice and did not ensure the employees were properly trained and demonstrated that they understood the training,” he told Global News. “The TSB report indicates that improper repairs were conducted on the locomotive that caught fire the tragic night.”

Lacoursière notes the TSB found that MMA lacked leadership by not effectively managing risks, implementing safety management systems and providing ineffective training. He argues leadership must come from the highest authority in a company through procedures and resources to make sure equipment and policies are up-to-date.

“Leadership is not only words, but a deep involvement of the leaders ensuring that what they stated is implemented,” he told Global News. “Leadership is not the flavour of the moment, but a deep and permanent involvement.”

The trial, which is being held in French and English, is expected to take three months.

Vermont Public Radio story here.

2 thoughts on “Lac-Mégantic Trial Moves Forward”
  1. This important story comes at a time when the managers of California’s oil refineries are having to seriously step up their process safety investments, including safety culture improvements, with the Oct 1 implementation date of the state’s revised Process Safety Management regulations. The main resistance we’re hearing is, “Does this mean we’re going to have to change what we’ve been doing for years?” Yes, it does.

  2. Something I cannot understand about this is what difference would 2 more handbrakes have made on a 9000 ton train?

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