Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lac Megantic was a Disaster Waiting To Happen

About 8 years ago I was between teaching contracts, so I decided to work for a few months  as a labourer on a railway track maintenance and repair crew in the  Williams Lake and 100 Mile House area.  I learned how heavy a railway tie is, and how heavy the tools are that are needed to repair track failures.  I also learned something else that I had previously been unaware of: just how common train derailments are. In that brief period I had been called to maybe half a dozen repair jobs and one serious derailment that was something of an emergency. I heard about a man who had been killed in Williams Lake a few years earlier because a derailment had caused a railway car to fall on top of him.  Whenever a train went by, the entire crew stood well back. I thought about how many derailments and deadly accidents and potential accidents there must have been in the entire country, given the number of towns and cities that had grown up around railway lines in Canada—places like 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Quesnel, Prince George and Prince Rupert.  

What brings all of this to mind, of course, is the recent disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec.  Although this was technically not a case of track failure ( it was a runaway train, that probably failed to negotiate a curve or piece of track because of its excessive speed ), it is a reminder of the omnipresent risk posed by the transportation of large amounts of flammable materials through populated areas. We must ask: have recent changes in policy or technology contributed to this disaster? Should recent increases in the amount of oil and fuel being transported on Canada’s railways have prompted a revision of rail transportation and safety policy?

Fact:   The Harper government cut the safety budget for railroads from $36.9 million to  $33.8 million --  even though  the rail transport of oil has increased by 28,000 % since 2009.  To me, this looks like the government’s  fiscal left hand was not coordinating with its energy-obsessed right hand. If it was understandably frustrated by the slowness of action in pipeline oil construction, and authorized this huge increase  in rail oil transportation, then it should have revisited a 2007 report from the Canada Safety Council, which had  raised the alarm about the dangers of allowing railways to regulate themselves, and  which had called Canada's railway network a “disaster waiting to happen.”  After a Via Rail derailment in 2012 killed 3 engineers and injured dozens of passengers, the Transportation Safety Board also  called for a major safety overhaul, but all the government would do is “recommend” the installation of audio and video recorders.

Both Conservative and Liberal governments share some of the blame for this disaster. Although  I appreciate the general logic of moving away from heavy reliance on  prescriptive rules and toward  more economically efficient “results-based” regulation and “self-regulation”, it is plainly evident that this approach did not  automatically adjust safety standards to meet the added risk entailed by the huge recent increase in oil traffic.    As I see it, the government should have increased the safety budget  instead of cutting it by $3.1 million; and should have returned to Transport Canada the oversight of rail safety that the Liberals had removed in 1999. 


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