Ten years ago today, an unmanned train carrying 72 tankers full of highly combustible crude oil careened down a mountain at over 65 miles/hour, hit a 10 mile-per-hour curve and derailed in the center of the lakeside community of Lac Mégantic, Quebec.
Within moments, the oil burst into flames, flowing down streets and into storm sewers, creating geysers of fire exploding from manholes. Residents, many still partying in towns bars and clubs, tried to flee the flaming tsunami, with little luck: the inferno obliterated most of downtown, destroying thirty buildings and incinerating forty-seven people. 26 children were left orphaned.
What lessons have we learned from this nearby disaster a decade ago, and how have we applied these lessons to rail safety in the United States?
The Lessons of Lac Mégantic
I wrote quite a bit about about the the Lac Mégantic tragedy several years ago. It’s a tragic and fascinating story. And, hopefully, educational.
On the fifth anniversary, I wrote an article for The Century Foundation about lessons that had been learned, and those that had not been learned.
Don’t blame the worker for industrial disasters. After the smoke had cleared, rail workers were blamed for the disaster (for allegedly not setting the brakes properly) and tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each of the victims of the rail disaster. But a Canadian government study and subsequent trial revealed that poor maintenance, faulty brakes, failure of (allegedly) redundant safety systems, flawed procedures, one man crews, inadequate training, and weak oversight were among the real root causes of the catastrophe.
Failure of Redundant Systems: Experts on preventing incidents in highly complex systems like chemical plants, nuclear power plants, aircraft—and railroads—cite the need for redundant backup systems. In other words, a single failure should not lead to a catastrophe. Although the Lac Mégantic train has redundant backup braking systems, several had been disabled — either to save money or due to faulty procedures.
Inadequate Maintenance Procedures: The lead locomotive had serious mechanical problems in the preceding months, but instead of making a lengthy standard repair, MMA decided to essentially glue the locomotive back together with an epoxy-like material that lacked the required strength and durability of a permanent repair. The engine had finally broken down in the mountains above Lac Mégantic, leading to the disaster.
Reliance on One-Man Crews: Canadian trains at the time had been allowed to run with one-man crews, something that U.S. rail operators are striving for. Transport Canada, the regulatory authority, imposed sixty-nine conditions before trains could operate trains with one man. But the rail company had failed to comply with all but one condition: a rear-view mirror.
Other issues included inadequate oversight, poor worker training and problematic corporate culture which compromised the company’s ability to effectively manage safety.
Are Improvements Adequate?
Some improvements have been made in Canada since the disaster
The government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous cargo and set new standards to make tank cars carrying flammable liquids sturdier. It also established stricter accident liability rules, imposed lower speed limits in rural and urban areas and gave Transport Canada stronger enforcement powers.
The department boosted the number of rail safety inspectors to 155 in 2022 from 107 in 2013…It has also quadrupled the tally of inspectors of dangerous goods to 188 from 30.
Transport Canada… phased in reinforced tanker cars better equipped than the infamous DOT-111s to handle flammable liquids, and reduced the maximum speeds of trains carrying dangerous goods to under 80 kilometres an hour, and to 56 kilometres an hour in highly urbanized areas….In 2015 the regulations for safety management systems — essentially a program designed to ensure railway companies can monitor and assess the overall effectiveness of their safety procedures — were beefed up. Railways were issued operating certificates that could be withdrawn if safety regulations were not met, and fines of up to $250,000 a day could be served to corporations found in non-compliance.
Despite these reforms, many Canadian experts fear that the improvements aren’t enough to prevent a similar disaster. In Canada,
Incidents involving uncontrolled movement of rail equipment, which is what caused the crash in Lac Mégantic, more than doubled to 78 between 2010 and 2019 before dropping off due to a pandemic-related dip in traffic, [Transportation Board Chair Kathy] Fox said.
Collisions and derailments on main tracks — which the TSB notes can have the “highest severity” of all rail accidents — hit three accidents per million train-miles last year.
That’s 25 per cent higher than the 10-year average, Fox said.
Meanwhile, the volume of dangerous goods on the tracks rose 70 per cent between 2011 and 2019, according to the government’s rail traffic database.
And as in the U.S., modern automatic braking technology has not been mandated.
Incidents involving uncontrolled movement of rail equipment, which is what caused the crash in Lac Mégantic, more than doubled to 78 between 2010 and 2019
Finally, Transport Canada, like the Federal Railroad Administration in the U.S. is a captured agency: It is the regulatory body in charge of safety, but it also has the mandate of ensuring the railway system is economically viable. According to Bruce Campbell, a professor in environmental studies at York University and author of The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied,
“So the question is, ‘How do you rebalance that relationship between regulator and regulated?’ And that’s a huge challenge….In a capture relationship, the corporate interest tends to subvert the public interest,” he said. This can manifest itself in reduced oversight, less resources for enforcement, and problematic accountability or liability. No one in a position of authority was ever brought to trial in the Lac-Mégantic case, Campbell noted. And no public inquiry was ever held.
Lessons for the U.S.
Citizens of the United States know little about the Lac Mégantic disaster, (even though the town lies only about 10 miles from the US border), but were understandably alarmed at the recent East Palestine derailment and chemical release.
Nearly one billion tons of chemicals are transported on trains across the United States each year. In 2022 alone, shippers reported 337 hazmat leaks, 32 of which were “serious,” according to an analysis by USA Today.
What has the Lac Mégantic disaster taught us about rail safety in the U.S.?
As we have seen, Canadian rail safety remains plagued by many of the same problems that were identified in the U.S. after East Palestine: Antiquated 19th century brake systems, longer and heavier trains, maintenance cutbacks, flawed safety procedures, short crews, worker fatigue and poor enforcement of existing rules. Add to that the Trump administration’s regulatory cutbacks and the rail operators’ cost-cutting program, Precision Scheduled Railroading, that has resulted in burned out workers, longer and heavier trains, maintenance cutbacks and a drive to move to 1-man trains.
Following East Palestine, a bipartisan group of Senators, led by Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J. D. Vance, introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The bill would establish new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, mandate safer rail cars for hazardous materials, mitigate derailment risk with rules for train size and weight, require a well-trained, two-person crews aboard every train, substantially increase the maximum fines for safety violations and other measures.
Since the bill was introduced, the deadlines for requiring safer HazMat tank cars, less prone to puncturing and releasing its contents during derailments, have been extended by a couple of years. The amended Senate bill also removes a requirement that the Transportation Secretary set length and weight limits for hazmat trains. But the bill generally seems to be on track in the Senate, despite opposition from some industry players and Astroturf “consumer” groups.
We shall see what happens in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives where a companion bill has been introduced and has several Republican co-sponsors.
It’s not hard for an industry to exceed “safety regulations required of them” if they’ve been successful in beating back regulatory requirements.
Despite Republican support in the House and Senate, there is, of course, opposition. Opponents argue that the bill is a give-away to labor because it prohibits one-person trains and requires that more time be spent on safety inspections. Of course most people would disagree that safety inspections are a bad thing, or that one crew member is adequate on a a 3 mile long train, but unions bad.
They also charge rather dubiously that the changes will increase rail shipping costs, leading chemical suppliers to move to less safe trucks. Finally, they complain that more regulations will stifle innovation, and argument eerily reminiscent of the excuses the owners of the ill-fated OceanGate Titanic submersible used for not having the vessel certified.
The editors of the National Review argued (rather amusingly), that “throughout their history, railroads have exceeded the safety regulations required of them.” “Amusing” because it’s not hard for an industry to exceed “safety regulations required of them” if they’ve been successful in beating back regulatory requirements.
As writer and philosopher George Santayana allegedly said, “Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It” — and likely cause horrible, preventable deaths.