On July 6, 2014, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) train carrying 72 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded near the downtown of Lac-Mégantic, Québec. The resulting fires caused massive destruction, the deaths of 47 people and the evacuation of 2,000.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) recently released a study on the derailment and its causes. (Note that the official investigations are still ongoing.)
The CCPA study identified these key culprits: a rail company that cut costs at the expense of safety and took advantage of a flawed regulatory system that gave it the freedom to do so.
The study believes that a government trend toward deregulation resulted in an undermining of safety.
For example, changes were made to the Railway Safety Act that gave companies the authority to implement safety management systems (SMS), thus enabling them to develop their own rules and standards. So companies make their own judgments about balancing costs and safety.
Federal inspectors audit and approve the SMSs submitted by the companies, but carry out far fewer on-site inspections. As a result, rails companies essentially regulate themselves and inspectors know less about what companies are actually doing, thus increasing the risk of unsafe practices not being identified.
MMA filed an SMS, including general and special operating instructions, which Transport Canada approved. But this system hasn’t been made public. It’s also not known whether Transport Canada audited MMA’s plan to verify that its operations complied with the safety procedures outlined in its SMS or whether the company itself filed the audit required as proof that it was complying with the rules.
In addition, although Canadian railways must operate with at least two-person crews, the Minister of Transport gave MMA an exemption from this rule, despite objections from the union representing the workers and MMA’s troubling safety record.
MMA reported 129 accidents since 2003, including 14 main track derailments. In fact, between 2003 and 2011, MMA’s accident rate was more than double or triple the US average for the rail industry.
MMA, one of the smaller railways, was an aggressive cost cutter, laying off staff and cutting wages in an effort to turn a profit, says the study. It also received some federal and provincial subsidies to upgrade track. Still, MMA has been a poor performer compared to other short-line railways in terms of maintenance and operation. And it has struggled financially for years.
The study also notes that several safety organizations had provided warnings that were ignored:
- The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) had warned of vague rules on properly securing handbrakes.
- The TSB also made recommendations about locking unmanned locomotives, requiring systems that automatically stop trains and improving the safety of certain tanker cars, which were rejected or ignored.
- The Environmental Commissioner in the Auditor General’s office issued a scathing report on Transport Canada, which noted that it had given just temporary or interim approval for only half of the required emergency response assistance plans (ERAPs) submitted by regulated companies. So dangerous products have been shipped for years without Transport Canada doing a detailed verification of these plans.
To ensure that your workplace is adequately prepared for emergencies such as explosions and fires, go to the OHS Insider’s Emergency Preparedness & Response Compliance Centre.