One Explosive Situation
An industry that writes its own rules leaves us all at risk
You can be forgiven if things get a bit foggy when you think about the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Nearly six years ago, on a splendid weekend evening in a quiet Quebec village, forty-seven people died after a runaway train loaded with tank cars carrying highly volatile crude oil went off the rails and exploded.
It was the largest disaster on Canadian soil since the Halifax explosion of 1917, and, deservedly, it was a very big story. But then, as is the way of news coverage, the TV satellite trucks and cable news reporters pulled out as the flames died down, leaving the town’s residents to make sense of the tragedy and to try to put their lives back together. For the world outside Lac-Mégantic, the story has sputtered intermittently in and out of the headlines: Three railway workers were charged with criminal negligence and then acquitted. The rail company carrying the oil that night declared bankruptcy, and civil damage lawsuits dragged on through the courts for years. Footage of the disaster was withdrawn from a Netflix production after general outrage. But there’s one headline you haven’t seen, because no senior officer of the rail and oil companies involved was held criminally accountable, and no independent inquiry into the Lac-Mégantic disaster ever took place.
Bruce Campbell clearly intends The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster to be the inquiry that never happened, and it’s just as clear that this is a work of deep emotion. (The book’s author and I are not related.) In August 2013, when he was still executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, he took his son to Lac-Mégantic to witness the devastation. When he returned to Ottawa, he learned that a colleague had lost three family members in the inferno, and he resolved to provide “a counterpoint to the official view” of the disaster.
The result combines meticulous research with personal stories and horrifying details about the destruction caused when sixty-three railroad cars piled on top of each other and then blew up. It took nearly three days for the fire to be extinguished. Shirts melted onto skin. No DNA could be found for five of the victims.
In Campbell’s view, the tragedy is further proof that the rules continue to be stacked in favour of railways — as they have been since the Pacific Scandal of 1873 revealed that federal politicians took bribes in return for contracts to build tracks to British Columbia. Corruption was the issue then, but today the impact of political interference is reduced safety. “The disaster was the direct result of decisions made by companies, and by governments that are supposed to protect the public,” Campbell writes. “A long pattern of loosening safety standards in the name of deregulation and cutting red tape made the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic possible.” He adds an even more important reason why Canadians should care: “Many of the conditions that led to the disaster are still in place.”
Campbell makes a vital point, because railcars carrying millions of litres of volatile crude oil, chlorine, ethanol, and propane crisscross the country every day, often through heavily populated areas, and there is little prospect of this situation changing as long as Canadians, Americans, and our governments are divided about the wisdom of building more pipelines. Rail shipment is safe — until it isn’t. Yet it operates largely outside the framework of rigorous public scrutiny that pipeline projects face; the infrastructure is already in place, and increased rail traffic does not trigger the same environmental review that a new pipeline does.
So-called pipelines on wheels running across Canada, to refineries in eastern Canada and the United States, largely depend on tank cars that are unsafe for the transportation of dangerous goods. Trains are often two kilometres long — in Toronto a locomotive would be at Yonge Street as the last car crosses Bathurst Street — and can carry up to 70,000 barrels of oil from the Alberta oil sands or the more recently opened oil patch in the Dakotas. Crude is cut with chemicals to make it flow more freely, and it’s these chemicals that make the oil especially volatile. As the residents of Lac-Mégantic discovered, an explosion of cars carrying Bakken oil from North Dakota devastates everything for two kilometres around.
Campbell has scrupulously researched how we got to the point where a small Quebec town could be nearly obliterated on a quiet evening in July without any warning. In his telling, it begins with the sloganeering of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who talked about governments getting out of the way and “unleashing the magic of the marketplace.” Brian Mulroney was an early convert to this view, and the day after his Progressive Conservatives took office in 1984, he delegated his deputy prime minister, Erik Nielsen, to get rid of “red tape” and to reduce the amount of government intervention in the economy.
A new Railway Safety Act was introduced the following year, and a process of deregulation began. (It’s one of the oddities of federal oversight that the law is distinct from the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, as if dangerous cargo has no bearing on rail safety.) Deregulation continued under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, with a revision to the Railway Safety Act that further reduced Transport Canada’s powers. In place of orders that could be issued to railways, there were now rail safety rules. But they were mostly written by the industry itself — what Campbell describes as a major victory. “As one former insider told me,” he writes, “ ‘This is where things went astray: When you put the fox in charge of the chicken coop, you need to have someone with a pretty big gun watching the fox.’ ”
The railways’ hold on government deepened through the phenomenon of “regulatory capture,” in which industry veterans were recruited as regulators and then returned to senior positions after a period in government. Since the Mulroney years, most senior managers in Transport Canada have come from industry “and many of them do not take off their railway hats after they arrive. Senior officials tend to defer to companies’ expertise and economic priorities, downplaying safety considerations.” (Nielsen was a prototype of this phenomenon: he left government in 1987 to become chair of what is now called the Canadian Transportation Agency, a quasi-judicial tribunal.)
CP Rail and the newly privatized Canadian National set out to bump up profits (and shareholder value) by cutting costs. In this, they were helped by the Liberal government’s introduction of safety management systems, or SMS, in 2001. In theory, the SMS regulations required companies to lead the way in managing risk and promoting safety. In practice, Transport Canada, its resources drained away by government spending restraint, proved incapable of holding the railways to their commitments, so in effect the industry became largely self-regulated, which Campbell decries as “a major surrender of Transport Canada’s direct-oversight authority.”
As railway regulations cooled in Canada, oil production in northern Alberta and North Dakota ramped up. The oil in both places is difficult to extract and requires chemical dilution. This is especially true of Bakken crude, which the industry can ship only with the addition of toxic, volatile compounds.
A decade ago, much of Alberta’s oil flowed south to the U.S. through pipelines, but rail was the only option for shipping North Dakota’s. With little regulatory or environmental scrutiny in the state, things moved fast. The first loading terminal was built in 2008, allowing 100-car trains to be assembled. Almost all of the oil was carried in the notorious TC‑111 tank car, known in the U.S. as the DOT‑111, a vehicle so flimsy insiders call it “a pop can on wheels” (it was designed to carry corn oil).
By 2012, North Dakota was shipping some 450,000 barrels every day. The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, which was not connected to a pipeline, was a favourite destination. The number of trains travelling across the U.S. Midwest and crossing the border at Windsor, Ontario, grew exponentially — from an annual total of 500 tank cars in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. CP Rail trains were forced to travel through built-up areas in southern Ontario and Quebec, including midtown Toronto, because rail lines through the Ottawa Valley had been abandoned.
Because CP no longer had track all the way to Saint John, it had to subcontract the final stretch to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a U.S.-owned carrier with a poor safety record. The seventy-eight-car train that crashed into Lac-Mégantic began its 5,000-kilometre journey in North Dakota on June 30, 2013. Six days later, MMA picked it up just outside Montreal. The train had just a single crew member — MMA had talked a compliant Transport Canada into allowing this — who was called in with three hours’ notice on his day off. The lead locomotive was smoking and spewing oil, pulling cars on track so badly maintained that Transport Canada mandated a top speed of just twenty-five kilometres per hour on some stretches.
After ten hours, the operator, Tom Harding, parked his 9,330-tonne rolling pipeline at the top of a hill, eleven kilometres out of town, because parking it further back on a flatter surface would have blocked a road crossing. He applied what he thought were a sufficient number of hand brakes and walked away. Minutes later, the troublesome locomotive caught fire. Local firefighters put out the blaze, but to do so they turned off the engine. This disabled an air brake. An hour later, the pressure in the air brake system leaked to the point where the hand brakes that Harding had applied — seven of them — could no longer hold the train. It began its roll into Lac-Mégantic. By the time it reached the centre of the town and hit a corner it couldn’t navigate, the train was travelling at more than a hundred kilometres per hour.
In a way, the fiery tragedy was a 2015 campaign gift for the federal Liberals, who vowed to properly fund Transport Canada and railway oversight. After the election, the new transport minister, Marc Garneau, talked tough, promising to make rail safety his “No. 1 priority.” There were certainly some initial moves: Ottawa moved to ban use of the TC‑111 for crude shipments sooner than previously planned. Instead, the CPC‑1232, a slightly improved TC‑111, would be allowed to carry crude until 2025, when fully replaced by the new TC/DOT‑117.
Elsewhere, the Railway Safety Act was subjected to a review, in which everyone from rail companies to community groups was consulted. However, Campbell maintains, the review was lacklustre and sidestepped flaws of the overall safety regime. In other words, the railways are still in control of their own safety practices. Worse, nearly a year after the findings were released, Transport Canada has still not figured out what to do with them. And it hasn’t yet announced a review of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act.
Meanwhile, derailments are a weekly occurrence — in remote regions, for the most part—and many go largely unnoticed. In 2015, the northern Ontario community of Gogama jumped into the headlines briefly, with two separate derailments. In the first, twenty-nine cars headed to a Quebec refinery came off the tracks, spilling 1.7 million litres of crude that burned for five days. In the second, thirty-nine cars derailed, and the resulting fire destroyed a bridge. Other incidents are quickly forgotten because their impact is minimal. In August 2016, a sleepy two-man crew in charge of two locomotives speeding through midtown Toronto missed a signal warning and clipped the tail end of a 900-metre-long train doing a crossover from one track to another. The two locomotives derailed and came to rest on Howland Avenue, in the densely populated Annex neighbourhood, spilling 2,500 litres of diesel fuel.
All the while the Alberta government has pledged to buy as many as 7,000 railcars to ship 120,000 barrels of crude oil a day. And here’s the thing: the 6 million litres of oil that spilled in Lac-Mégantic easily eclipsed the biggest pipeline spill in the past decade, the 4.4 million litres that poured out near Little Buffalo, Alberta, in 2011.
Garneau’s pledge to zero in on rail safety also seems to have dissipated, with the current situation frustrating the Transportation Safety Board, the federal investigator whose Lac-Mégantic report was watered down under industry and government pressure. In releasing its watch list last fall, the TSB pointed to “important gaps” in safety management and noted that more than sixty of its recommendations are still outstanding after a decade — and some are more than twenty years old. It called for a “profound change in attitudes and behaviours” around crew fatigue, a contributing factor in more than ninety of its investigations. Furthermore, it observed that Canada lags behind Europe and the U.S. in technologies that ensure crews respond to visual signals. It noted that Transport Canada and the industry remain in “study mode,” although the TSB has been pressing for changes: “The past few years have seen many meetings but insufficient progress on implementing the solutions that are already known.”
Campbell comes to a more pointed conclusion: “Deregulation and deference to industry are still the order of the day.” This underscores the profound disconnect between our view of pipelines and our view of railways. Pipelines are subject to heavy scrutiny, and every proposal is greeted with picket signs and protests. On the other hand, trains transporting dangerous goods near our homes operate largely out of the spotlight — except when things go tragically wrong. Even then, the world quickly moves on. The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster urges us to slow down and fix the problem.