Almost all Canadians will the remember the Lac Megantic disaster in July, 2013, involving a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) freight train loaded with volatile crude oil that derailed and exploded, with 47 fatalities. Dr. Bruce Campbell, former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and now Professor at York University, has published a new book “The Lac-Megantic Rail Disaster – Public Betrayal, Justice Denied”. Campbell is a long-time friend of Transport Action and our organization attended the book launch. He has written extensively about Lac-Megantic.
Although Transport Action’s mandate is passenger rail, the obvious connections with freight rail means that we monitor this field in such areas as infrastructure and safety.
The book tracks the events leading to the disaster, focussing on regulatory and policy decisions made by government, including deregulation, privatization, government austerity and neoliberalism. It fingers the introduction (2001) of the Safety Management System approach, which are developed and managed by the companies themselves and lead to reduced unannounced field inspections by regulators. However, the single largest failure was the Transport Canada (TC) approval (2012) allowing MMA to implement Single Person Train Operation, despite their very poor safety record.
The disaster followed a year later.
Campbell indicates that the response to the disaster has been weak. Only 3 low level employees were charged criminally, and found not guilty. A civil settlement of $460M was reached, well below actual damages. The Harper government passed the Safe Rail Act, which modestly increased insurance requirements for railways and modestly increased the number of TC inspectors.
Campbell alleges that political pressure on the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) resulted in a report that whitewashed the culpability of TC in allowing MMA’s repeated safety violations to go unchecked and allowing one person operations.
Today the situation is still worrysome. Railway incidents, including runaways, continue at a high level. Oil-by-rail movements are likely to increase. Vulnerable tank car (CP-1232) phaseout is not until 2025. The safety management system approach and fatigue management are the top two items on the TSB watchlist.
Campbell’s book is available from James Lorimer & Company Publishers. It is a fascinating read.