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

OTTAWA — Its nearly silent approach belied the fiery death it was bringing.

Rapidly gaining speed until it hit 65 miles per hour, the cargo train carrying 63 tank cars filled with light petroleum oil rolled downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, a popular tourist town east of Montreal, without any crew members on board to sound a warning or try to stop it.

At about 1:15 a.m. on July 6, 2013, as the ghost train raced into the town’s center, the tank cars separated from the locomotives and derailed. The resulting explosion of six million liters of oil killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, a community of 5,600, and incinerated most of its downtown.

The disaster on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railroad was Canada’s deadliest railway crash in 149 years. It raised alarm in a country where miles-long trains hauling oil, explosives and toxic chemicals roll relentlessly through the centers of some of its largest cities and dozens of smaller communities, many of which had been created by the arrival of a railway.

Similar concerns have been raised in the United States after a freight train derailed in Ohio, setting off a fire and leading the authorities to deliberately release toxic fumes to neutralize burning train cargo.

Yet despite repeated calls in Canada for a special inquiry into the disaster and rail safety in general, none was ever convened. And a decade later, many rail safety experts say that changes to rules and how railways are regulated fall short of what is needed to avoid a repeat of the devastation — a consequence, they say, of rail industry pushback.

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

“What we’ve been calling for are physical defenses,” she added. “It is certainly discouraging, disappointing. I guess you can use different words when we see how long it can take to resolve some of these issues.”

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

Lobbying by railways and shippers, particularly the energy industry, continues to delay measures that could prevent future accidents, said Bruce Campbell, an adjunct professor of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto, who wrote a book and several reports on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

“That’s seminal whether it’s in Canada or the U.S.,” Mr. Campbell said. “They all act very much in concert to limit regulations and dilute them so they can’t be properly enforced.”

While a preliminary investigation into the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has identified an overheated axle bearing as the cause, mechanical failure was only one of a series of factors that led to the deadly crash in Lac-Mégantic.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that safety practices were skimpy and that working employees to the point of fatigue was common at the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, a threadbare regional railway that picked up freight in Montreal from the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of Canada’s two major lines and a major operator in the central United States that first owned the route until 1995.

Today, downtown Lac-Mégantic remains largely an open field. Longer and heavier trains pass even more frequently through the town on rebuilt tracks.

The train that bore down on Lac-Mégantic a decade ago had only a single crew member who parked the train about seven miles uphill from the town when his shift ended.

In the first of a series of  errors, the engineer, who later testified to feeling exhausted by the time he was done working,  failed to apply a sufficient number of hand brakes on the train’s cars, an arduous task, when he left the train for the night and took a taxi to his hotel.

After the engineer left, a small fire broke out in the lead locomotive which had been spewing oil all day. Once it was extinguished, firefighters, on the railway’s recommendation, shut down the locomotive, another major error. Without the locomotive’s power, the train’s separate air braking system gradually lost its force, compounding the insufficiency in engaged hand brakes and setting the train free.

One recommendation that was swiftly implemented nationwide was the replacement of the tank car models used on the Lac-Mégantic train, with new or retrofitted ones designed to be sturdier if they were to derail.

But evidence from derailments since then suggests that the new tank cars have largely failed to prove more resilient, said Ian Naish, the former director of rail accident investigations at the safety board, who is now a safety consultant.

“The bad news is that it looks like if you have a derailment at a speed greater than 35 miles an hour, there’s no guarantee they can continue to contain the products,” he said. “So long as you want to keep trains humming along the tracks at a relatively high rate of speed, if there is a derailment it’s highly likely that there’s going to be a leak, a rupture or a fire.”

The rail industry, Ms. Fox said, has not been receptive to another safety suggestion by the transportation board: that railroads add chemicals to explosive cargos to reduce their flammability during shipment.

Nor have they heeded the agency’s call for electric parking brakes on trains to replace hand brakes, which are often inadequately tightened and have not significantly changed in design since the 19th century.

The destruction of Lac-Mégantic led to rules requiring railways to hold operating permits much like airlines and develop safety management systems, but Ms. Fox said her agency was concerned about the adequacy of such plans, as well as the effectiveness of their oversight by Transport Canada, the agency that regulates railroads.

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

The Lac-Mégantic disaster led to the demise of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.

In 2020, Canadian Pacific, the line’s original owner, purchased it as part of a program that involved expanding a container port in New Brunswick.

The railroad had spent 70 million Canadian dollars on new rails, rail ties and other improvements to the once dilapidated Montreal, Main and Atlantic line as it increased the number and size of the trains it carries, said Andy Cummings, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific.

Disputes over the route of a rail bypass that will divert trains away from the center of Lac-Mégantic have delayed downtown reconstruction. In the meantime, the rumbling of trains still inspires dread in a community where few people do not know someone who died because of the fiery derailment.

“We don’t feel any safer,” said Gilbert Carette, a member of a citizens’ rail safety group formed after the wreck. “I think it’s a betrayal by the companies not improving railroad safety.”

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