Profits first, safety later: Lessons from Lac-Mégantic

This week is the final phase of the criminal trial against the dispatcher and engineer of the oil train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 which leveled much of the downtown area, killing 47 people. A jury will soon determine their culpability for that deadly accident. 

Regardless of the jury’s decision, putting rail workers on trial in this deadly disaster is itself criminal. The workers aren’t to blame. What should be on trial is the profits-first, safety-later corporate approach to oil trains permitted by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Safety later: The corporate approach

In Lac-Mégantic, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway’s (MMA) corporate policies allowed a crude oil bomb train to be left unattended — overnight, on a slope, with brakes that would later fail. (The brakes failed due to an engine issue and subsequent emergency response where a fire crew turned the engine off, which caused the brakes to depressurize and release.)

The MMA required only a single engineer to operate the mile-long train of volatile Bakken crude oil. Because there was no additional engineer available nearby, the company’s dispatcher told the engineer to park the train and end his shift, and to set only the most easily applied (and least time intensive) part of the braking system. 

The dispatcher and engineer simply followed corporate protocol. Yet they’re still being dragged through a criminal trial. 

The real blame for the Lac-Mégantic disaster lies with the MMA’s willingness to put profits ahead of public safety — and the unwillingness of the U.S. and Canadian governments to provide desperately-needed safety oversight of the rail industry.

Persistent problems on today’s railways

The list of corporate conditions that led to the Lac-Mégantic disaster directly mirror problems that persist on the rails today. What’s worse, these problems are only deteriorating in the U.S. under the Trump Administration. (A detailed overview is available on the DeSmog Blog.) 

  • Brakes: At Lac-Mégantic, in order to save time when restarting the train, the engineer set only some brakes — per MMA policy. This allowed the train to roll away when the brakes depressurized. Right now, the Trump Administration is in the process of discarding requirements for better braking standards — like electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP). ECP allows engineers to apply brakes to all rail cars simultaneously, contributing to better control and shorter stopping distances.

  • Train control: Even without human interference, positive train control (PTC) can save lives by automatically controlling train speeds. The recent Amtrak disaster in Washington State might have been avoided if PTC had been implemented on those tracks. PTC is designed to stop trains before accidents occur, such as train-to-train collisions, derailments due to speed, and trains moving on the wrong track switches.

  • One person crews: Trains should never be left unattended, and during accidents, trains should have at least one additional crew member to investigate problems along the length of the train. With a single engineer, it is impossible to secure the train AND investigate an incident — at a time when seconds matter. Right now, the Trump Administration is pushing to allow one person crews on all trains — even hazardous, flammable oil trains like the one that derailed in Lac-Mégantic.

  • Volatility: The federal government continues to allow highly volatile crude oil to travel in inadequate tank cars that meet only a minimum standard of surviving for 100 minutes in a fire without exploding and can puncture at less than 15 mph. The government has also failed to require the stabilization of fracked crude oil, meaning a higher likelihood of explosions in an oil train disaster.

  • Track maintenance: While not a factor in Lac-Mégantic, broken tracks — frequently caused by the heaviest trains like oil and coal trains — often factor into rail disasters. There are currently no government standards for rail replacement in the U.S., and inspection requirements are clearly inadequate.

Failed government oversight and corporate greed will bring us the next Lac-Mégantic disaster. The issue isn’t the railway workers who are simply following corporate policy — the problem is a system that prioritizes profits over safety.

Sign our petition and tell your local leaders to stop dangerous oil trains from rolling through our communities — before another tragedy like this occurs.