OTTAWA—As the fallout continues in the wake of the devastating series of explosions aboard a train hauling crude oil in eastern Quebec, a Canadian rail expert says the onus is on Ottawa to ensure incidents like this don’t happen again.
With the death toll rising to 15 and the number of missing hovering near the 40 mark three days after the unattended freight train rolled into the tiny town of Lac-Megantic, Que., and burst into flames, David Jeanes, president of advocacy group Transport Action Canada, said it’s up to the federal government to take action.
“We have to take very concrete action, particularly at the federal level, to try to make sure that such an accident can never happen again,” Jeanes said from Ottawa.
Despite reports of failed brakes and a history of punctures among the tankers involved in the deadly derailment, Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators on the ground have released little in terms of potential causes.
And according to Jeanes, it could be a year or more before results of the investigation are made public.
While the outcome of the TSB investigation and any recommendations that may come with it remains to be seen for the time being, Jeanes said he could imagine a further push for positive train control (PTC) systems—on-board equipment that monitors and regulates a train’s movement—to be installed across Canada’s rail network.
“What they’re talking about is putting computer equipment in every locomotive that operates on a main line or a high-speed line and hooking them into the railway signalling systems,” Jeanes said.
Though the move would be expensive, he said it’s an alternative to retrofitting all freight locomotives and cars with new braking systems.
“Something as radical as changing the braking technology on all the freight cars on Canadian railways—or even just the oil tanker cars—would probably be prohibitively expensive,” Jeanes said.
The recommendation to have PTC systems installed in Canadian locomotives was brought forward as recently as a month ago after the TSB released its investigation report into a February 2012 derailment of a Via Rail passenger train in Burlington, Ont., that left three locomotive engineers dead and scores of passengers injured.
“When the TSB made their recommendation they made it quite clear that (it) applied to freight railways and passenger railways,” he said.
According to Jeanes, the TSB has been encouraging the use of PTC systems in freight and passenger trains for about a decade.
Though if the 73-car train was in fact unattended, Jeanes noted, having a PTC system in place would have done little to mitigate the destruction seen in the town of 6,000 about 250 kilometres east of Montreal.
“If this (truly) was a runaway train where there was no braking control, even an on-board computer that tried to apply the brakes might not have been able to do anything,” he said. “A heavy train like that can’t necessarily be stopped if the brakes are not functioning.”
With talk of a federal inspector looking over a locomotive involved prior to the incident—Minister of Transportation Denis Lebel confirmed a Transport Canada official inspected the locomotive just the day before the incident leveled about 30 buildings in Lac-Megantic—Jeanes said another topic that’s surely going to find the spotlight is the idea of the rail industry becoming at least partially self-regulated.
Currently, the industry in Canada is federally-regulated.
“There are questions that have been raised about whether the move towards safety management systems where there’s an increasing onus on the transportation companies themselves to have responsibility for safety including setting up their own management structure to make sure that safety is part of the corporate culture and also to some extent to do self inspection,” he said.
Regardless of what recommendations come out of the TSB inspection and how Transport Canada responds to the incident, Jeanes said what happened in Lac-Megantic should not unfairly liven the rail-versus-pipeline discussion.
“I don’t think we can really just consider it as a black-and-white question,” he said of a debate between the two methods of shipping oil.
“I think trying to construct pipeline capacity to eliminate the railways as part of the system of transporting oil products would be far too expensive, would not make sense and would take too long anyway,” he continued.
“The railways are there now, they have the capacity and they cover the routes that, in many cases, pipelines do not, so I think I think it’s far more important to focus on safety.”
The same goes for the argument for re-routing rail lines around populous areas to avoid potential accidents like the one that occurred in Lac-Megantic, he said.
“That would be prohibitively expensive too, because in many cases the populated areas exist because they were built on the railway lines,” Jeanes said.
“Even Lac-Megantic used to be a major railway division point where the rail line coming from the east through Maine met the rail line headed west to Sherbrooke and Montreal.
“That was the major changeover point for locomotive crews and for servicing trains, so originally Lac-Megantic’s economy was heavily dependent on the railway and that’s why there’s still such a large area in the heart of town with railway tracks.”
With that in mind, Jeanes said, whatever new rules, regulations and recommendations come out of the tragedy that continues to unfold in southeastern Quebec, it’s important that those directly impacted in Lac-Megantic are taken into account.
“It’s an awful tragedy for the town of Lac-Megantic and the people who live there,” Jeanes said. “When you look at the devastation to their town centre and the impact on so many families it’s hard to talk about what might be done in terms of regulation without thinking about how individual people are really affected.”