OHS Canada Magazine

Off the Rails

March 1, 2014
By Jeff Cottrill
Health & Safety

It was Canada’s worst rail disaster in more than a century. In the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, a 72-car freight train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, a small town in southern Quebec with a population of about 6,000....

It was Canada’s worst rail disaster in more than a century. In the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, a 72-car freight train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, a small town in southern Quebec with a population of about 6,000. The train, owned by American company Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), had been carrying petroleum crude oil from North Dakota towards the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

At about 12:56 a.m., the unattended train broke loose and began to roll downhill towards Lac-Mégantic before derailing on a sharp curve. An estimated 47 people were killed, with at least 30 buildings destroyed.

J.A. Ash, Toronto-based head of the dangerous-goods team with the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) in Ottawa, witnessed much of the aftermath while visiting Lac-Mégantic for 15 days following the disaster. “I’ve been in the railway business for over 35 years and I’ve been responding to dangerous-goods incidents for 25 years,” Ash says. “I’ve never seen one with that many fatalities.”

Quebec’s environment department estimated that of the 7.6 million litres of crude oil that the train had been carrying, nearly six million litres had spilled or burned in the disaster. Some crude contaminated the local sewer system, while 100,000 litres spilled into the nearby Chaudière River and other oil landed as far as 120 kilometres away.

Raynald Marchand, general manager of the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa, believes that the disaster was due to a combination of several factors connected to security failure. Among the details that have come out: the cargo was improperly labelled; the train employed only one crew member — the locomotive engineer; the engineer retired to a hotel for the night, leaving the train unattended on a hill in nearby Nantes with the engine running; and an insufficient amount of hand brakes were applied during the stop.


“And when that failed,” Marchand says in reference to the train’s security, “the inevitable came along.”

Packing Heat

While the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is still investigating the incident, it has already issued several safety-advisory letters. As early as July 19, 2013, the TSB sent a letter to Transport Canada (TC) asking that the government review railway operating procedures to ensure that trains carrying dangerous goods were not left unattended on main tracks. Last September, the TSB sent letters to TC and the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, asking them to review how suppliers documented the hazardous qualities of the goods they moved.

The oil on the Lac-Mégantic train was documented as being far less dangerous than it was. Test results revealed that the crude had been a Packing Group II product, meaning that it had an initial boiling point above 35°C at an absolute pressure of 101.3 kilopascals and a flash point lower than 23°C —equivalent to the danger of gasoline. Nonetheless, it was labelled as Packing Group III, a classification for less flammable material. “The lower flash point of the crude oil explains in part why it ignited so quickly,” the TSB concluded in a statement issued on September 11.

A railway safety inspector with Canadian Pacific (CP), who has asked not to be identified due to a “conflict”, clarifies that the Packing Groups are not actually packaged differently; they are merely identified and distinguished by label. “The numbers on the placard tell you what the flammable content is inside the car,” the inspector says.

The TSB also notes that a broken piston in the train’s engine may have caused unburned fuel to spill into the engine, which would have created sparks and smoke that could have triggered the initial fire less than 90 minutes earlier. Before the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, the train had caught fire during the stop in Nantes. The fire was extinguished at around midnight — about 10 minutes after it had been reported to the rail-traffic controller.

Further investigation suggests that the applied force of the hand brakes — backups for the air brakes — was insufficient for a train parked on a slope on a 1.2 per cent descent, causing the locomotive to roll down towards Lac-Mégantic. According to safety guidelines, the attendant should have activated 40 per cent of the train’s hand brakes on five locomotives and 11 tank cars.

In Canada, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act of 1992 regulates the shipment of oil and other flammable materials. Under the Act, TC is expected to inspect rail companies on a regular basis. Other requirements include proper documentation, safety marks and sufficient reporting and training. Aside from safety requirements and standards, the Act also deals with emergency-response plans, means of containment and monitoring compliance.

“Oil and gas are routinely shipped safely across the country every day,” says federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt from Parliament Hill. “If regulations are not followed, we will not hesitate to take whatever course of action is available to us.”

Raitt responded to the disaster last October by ordering all importers to conduct hazard-classification tests on any petroleum crude oils or flammable liquids that had not undergone such testing since July 7. The ministry also issued directives for the rail industry with new rules regarding supervision, security and brake use on trains carrying dangerous goods.

“We are also examining whether we need further measures to strengthen rail safety and the transportation of dangerous goods,” Raitt adds.

Full Speed Ahead

But federal Opposition Transport Critic Olivia Chow is not satisfied with the government’s efforts to keep people safe from rail accidents. “Transport Canada lacks a consistent approach to planning and implementing compliance activities to make sure railways are following regulations,” Chow says from Ottawa. “Worse still, where problems were discovered, 73 per cent of the time, Transport Canada did not follow up to see if the problems were fixed. This is incompetent public administration that is putting the public in danger.”

Statistics Canada notes that the amount of crude oil travelling on Canadian railways has increased enormously over the past few years. About 68,000 carloads of fuel oils and crude petroleum were transported by rail in Canada in 2011; that figure leaped to 115,000 carloads in 2012. In 2013, Canadian railways moved 160,000 carloads. There were 118 rail accidents involving dangerous goods in 2011 and 2012 each — down from a five-year average of 147, the TSB reports.

“The federal government has not adapted its safety programs to deal with this rapid change in our transportation system,” contends Chow. “We know the government is not doing enough, because they are cutting transport regulatory oversight by $6.7 million.”

Nonetheless, Raitt maintains that the government’s top priority is the Canadian public’s health and safety. “Transport Canada is moving forward to further enhance the safety of railway operations and dangerous-goods transportation in Canada,” she says.

Regulation Derailed?

One of the most enlightening responses to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is an October of 2013 report by Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa. Campbell’s report, The Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Where Does the Buck Stop?, charges that government deregulation has made the rail industry unsafe.

Rail companies have jumped to meet the enormous demand for oil transportation due to the shortage of pipelines, but have been trusted to regulate themselves on safety — and have failed to do so because the bottom line has taken higher priority. According to the report, MMA — an independent entity in the United States that already had a poor safety record — took advantage of lax Canadian regulations.

“Ultimately, it’s a flawed regulatory regime and it’s the self-regulation aspect to it that is the root cause of it,” says Campbell. “If we’re going to really address the problem, what I would call for, fundamentally, is for Transport Canada to take back regulatory authority that it has ceded to the corporations.”

It is a pattern that Campbell claims has been going on for about 25 years. Most significantly, changes to the Railway Safety Act in 2001 allowed rail companies to implement their own standards, or Safety Management Systems. Then in 2012, the Cabinet Directive on Regulatory Management (CDRM) added new barriers against federal regulation.

According to the CDRM, departments and agencies must repeal one regulation for every new one that causes “red tape”, or administrative burdens on corporations. In addition, regulations are expected to accomplish their objectives while imposing the lowest possible costs to businesses.

As a result, companies have been cutting corners to reduce costs at the expense of safety. Before the Lac-Mégantic incident took place, crews on hazardous trains were reduced, insufficient tank cars were used to transport crude and brake rules were left vague. The government’s Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate is supplying 35 railway safety inspectors, or one for every 4,000 tank carloads of oil moved by rail each year. The department’s budget of $13 million is inadequate for the massive increase in crude transported via rail over the past five years — an increase from close to zero to nearly 275,000 barrels per day, Campbell’s report notes.

Campbell says this negligence has stemmed from the contradictory responsibilities of government and the private sector. “Ultimately, it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the public, and the first obligation of the company is to maximize value for the shareholders,” he argues. When the government cedes its responsibility to big business, “the companies are always going to lean towards their costs of production,” Campbell adds.

“Was it a reasonable measure for Transport Canada to allow MMA to operate a train like that, one of these mega oil trains with, in this case, 72 cars and tonnes of product, with one engineer? Or to allow it to park on the main track, unlocked and unattended? Until Lac-Mégantic, they were allowed to do that,” Campbell says.

Safety First?

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) announced in Ottawa on January 23 three recommendations for rail companies shipping dangerous goods, which the TSB, in partnership with the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States, want to see put into effect immediately. The following three measures were recommended:

• Tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars, including older ones: All containers carrying flammable liquids must have enhanced protection, and the gradual phase-out of unprotected older cars is not good enough;

• Better route planning for dangerous goods: Railways must choose routes more carefully, noting what lies along the current routes as well as alternate, less risky routes; and

• Emergency response assistance plans: Resources must always be in place to minimize the consequences of a spill of dangerous goods and/or a fire.

This follows an emergency directive issued by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt on October 22, 2013 to Canadian railway companies in response to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. This directive requires the following measures to be taken:

• A minimum of two qualified employees must operate every train carrying dangerous goods;

• Operators must never leave a train with dangerous goods unattended on a main track;

• All cars carrying dangerous goods must be secured against unauthorized entry;

• Remove directional controls from unattended trains; and

• Brakes must be applied sufficiently and properly on all locomotives left unattended.

But some see Transport Canada’s actions as too little, too late. “Why did it take an accident like Lac-Mégantic to make those changes?” asks Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa. “There is a need for independent investigation to really get to the bottom of this. I’ve seen what parliamentary committees do, and they’re not really effective towards that respect.”

As the Toronto-based director of the rail division at UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private-sector union, Brian Stevens agrees that this hands-off approach poses a security problem.

“Can you imagine if the aviation industry was run in the same way as the rail industry?” he says. “We leave it to the employers or the railways themselves to regulate, and they’ll create a nice report on an annual basis and send it off to the regulators and say, ‘Hey, listen, we’re doing our job.’”

Stevens adds that railway safety inspectors — whose role is to monitor and promote regulatory compliance in all aspects of the rail industry through audits and inspections, as well as provide education and awareness of safety — are not working as effectively as they could be.

“The federal government said there are as many inspectors today as there were 10 years ago,” he notes. “But it seems like they’re spending more time dealing with regulatory submissions and paperwork, as opposed to doing blitzes out in the field. And they’re relying on the good graces of the railways themselves to do what they say they’re supposed to be doing.”

The source at CP who did not want to be identified affirms TC’s shortage of safety inspectors. “You only have two inspectors in all of Ontario,” he says, citing that the government claims this is due to financial constraints. “I know that for a fact, because I applied there a few years back and they told us outright that the reason why they didn’t hire anybody on is because there’s a shortage of funds.”

He claims TC inspectors have “been kicked off properties for going and doing their jobs.”

Wear and Tear

One problem that Campbell highlights in his report is the inadequacy of the tanker cars being used to carry bitumen. It has been known since the early 1990s that the CTC-111A car, also known as DOT-111 in the United States — an all-purpose car with a single steel shell — has a tendency to puncture during derailments.

Although the United States National Transportation Safety Board introduced CTC-111A design modifications in October of 2011, including thicker heads and shells, normalized steel, head shields half-an-inch thick and top-fitting protection, 80 per cent of Canada’s tanker fleet still consists of older CTC-111A cars, which comprised all of the carriers in the train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic.

“Transport Canada was really quite complacent about the threat,” Campbell suggests, citing internal TC memos. “We’re learning that the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate didn’t consider oil to be a dangerous good.” He adds that there are no regulations in place to upgrade any of the older tank cars. “The life of those cars is about 40 years, so at the current rate, it’s going to take ages for that fleet to be replaced.”

Stevens points out that an appropriate tank car, which would have the capacity to handle such volatile fuel, has not yet been constructed. “The industry knows that, the shippers know that, the regulators know that, the lawmakers know that, but no one’s pushing the manufacturers to make sure we get enough cars,” he charges.

More recently, CTC-111A cars were involved in another accident in New Brunswick. On January 7, a train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas to Saint John derailed in Plaster Rock, causing a fire and forcing an evacuation of 150 nearby residents. A second train also derailed in New Brunswick later that month.

But industry is dragging its feet on the issue of replacing the cars — a costly endeavour. “How many millions of miles have we put on these things over the years without incident?” Ash says. “If we thought these things were unsafe, we wouldn’t have moved them. And that comes from experience. And we’re more than willing to work with everybody to make them even safer.”

Pipelines, Trains and Automobiles

Another view is that rail simply is not a safe way to ship crude. A recent study by right-wing think tank The Fraser Institute, entitled Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil, suggests that disasters like the Lac-Mégantic derailment are less likely when crude is moved via pipeline. The study examined oil spills in North America over the past 20 years and concluded that pipeline transport is statistically safer than rail shipment, when one takes into account the average number of incidents and injuries per billion tonnes of petroleum shipped per mile each year, as well as the number of fatalities for each mode.

“There’s no risk-free option involved with regard to moving goods,” says Dr. Kenneth Green, PhD, the institute’s senior director of natural resources in Calgary who co-wrote the study with Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute. “But some are riskier than others.”

Dr. Green concedes that the vast majority of oil shipments reach their destinations without incident, regardless of method. But he stresses that with pipelines, “you move the product without moving the container, whereas for trains, you have many moving containers that are large, heavy and dangerous.”

Rail transport, Dr. Green says, has a far greater range for human error. “Rail lines, by intent, connect up population centres, which means your exposure to people is higher. The train cars carrying bitumen on the rails with other goods interacts with other surface transport, so you have much more opportunity for accidents.”

The RAC counters that 99.997 per cent of dangerous goods shipped by rail reach their destinations without any safety problems. But what about the other 0.003 per cent that do not? “It’s a valid question,” Ash admits.

Nonetheless, Ash maintains that rail transport is safe. “We took this incident personally, because we do work hard in the railway industry to ensure everything is running safely,” he explains. “We work hard with the regulators as far as developing regulations. We work hard with the car builders to make these tank cars. We work hard with our employees as far as doing safety audits and inspections and training. And not only that, we work with the first responders.”

Municipal Matters

Aside from affecting the companies responsible for derailments of locomotives carrying dangerous goods, these accidents can have catastrophic effects on industries in surrounding communities as well. “In addition to the tragic loss of life, homes and businesses,” Chow says, “agricultural land becomes unusable, drinking water sources are threatened, regional tourism is affected and important rail supply chains are interrupted. All of these problems can be avoided when we have an effective, strong regulatory process in place that prevents disasters before they occur.”

Chow adds that municipalities need to be pre-warned of the extent and frequency of dangerous goods passing through their borders. “We need to ensure that all rail companies have adequate insurance, so that when tragedies do arise, those who are directly affected have the appropriate compensation.”

Since the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic, the government is waking up to these issues. On November 20, 2013 — more than four months after the derailment —Raitt introduced a protective directive decreeing that everyone who transports dangerous goods by rail must disclose information to the municipalities through which they travel. All transporters of dangerous goods must provide yearly aggregate information on the nature and volume of the transported goods to the designated emergency planning officials of the relevant municipalities and also provide TC with full contact information of those who deal with the municipalities’ Emergency Planning Officials, via the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre.

Making it Better

Apart from beefing up regulations on the transportation of dangerous goods, how else can disasters like Lac-Mégantic be averted in future? Marchand suggests investing in technology, such as Positive Train Control (PTC), aimed at preventing accidents rather than responding to them after they occur. The PTC system monitors and controls train movement to avoid collisions, enforce speed restrictions and protect rail workers at wayside locations — “particularly for passenger trains, where the speed of the track is enforced automatically if the conductor doesn’t react to the requirement for that speed,” he says.

Marchand also stresses regular maintenance as an important factor in rail safety, especially when it comes to keeping tracks and brakes in a good state of repair. “The safety system is to avoid the crash in the first place. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s where the railway needs to go.”

Another possible solution is to upgrade the rail system itself. “The rail infrastructure in some cases is old and degraded,” Dr. Green says. “Some of the older cars are more prone to accidents and derailing and might need to be upgraded.”

Ash recognizes that once the TSB publicizes its report and makes recommendations, stakeholders involved in the transportation of dangerous goods will need to kick things into gear and make significant changes.

“Talk is cheap, but we have to put things into action,” Ash says. “I can see we’re going to be doing some more work in the future. We’re constantly out there, and we constantly want to improve on safety.”

This will be possible only if the rail industry is willing to be subject to external regulations and, in cooperation with the government, make safety a top priority. “Transport Canada needs to show transparency and disclose who they are inspecting, how often and how they will make sure that companies are complying with laws,” says Chow, adding that the government should conduct a review to determine how to improve the system of self-regulation.

“Victims and taxpayers should not be left with the bill when companies cut corners to drive up profits.”

Jeff Cottrill is editorial assistant of OHS CANADA.

Follow us on Twitter @OHSCanada


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories