Kathy Fox still remembers the looks on the faces of the grieving family members on the morning in August 2014, as she tried to explain how the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster had happened.
“You can imagine the grief, the shock, the anger, all the emotions,” Fox recalled.
“It was a hard day.”
The Transportation Safety Board chair was in the school auditorium to deliver the agency’s report on the tragedy — and the failures that allowed an unattended train carrying 72 tankers full of crude oil to careen off the rails at over 100 km/h, bursting into flames in the heart of the lakeside community on July 6, 2013.
Forty-seven people were killed in the inferno, creating the worst rail accident in modern Canadian history.
The fire, which burned for two days before finally being quelled by the efforts of some thousand firefighters, wiped out much of the centre of the 6,000-person town.
A slew of investigations, court cases, reports and regulatory changes followed over the succeeding decade.
The government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous cargo and set new standards to make tank cars carrying flammable liquids sturdier. It also established stricter accident liability rules, imposed lower speed limits in rural and urban areas and gave Transport Canada stronger enforcement powers.
The department boosted the number of rail safety inspectors to 155 in 2022 from 107 in 2013, said Nadine Ramadan, the transport minister’s spokeswoman, in an email. It has also quadrupled the tally of inspectors of dangerous goods to 188 from 30.
The safety record
Despite new penalties and tougher rules around safety management, experts say the current regime is far from sufficient to ensure railways steer clear of another catastrophe.
“Have they made the improvements necessary to prevent another Mégantic? My answer to that is no,” said Bruce Campbell, an adjunct professor in environmental studies at Toronto’s York University and author of “The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied.”
Safety statistics don’t paint an especially reassuring picture.
Incidents involving uncontrolled movement of rail equipment, which is what caused the crash in Lac-Mégantic, more than doubled to 78 between 2010 and 2019 before dropping off due to a pandemic-related dip in traffic, Fox said.
Collisions and derailments on main tracks — which the TSB notes can have the “highest severity” of all rail accidents — hit three accidents per million train-miles last year.
That’s 25 per cent higher than the 10-year average, Fox said.
Meanwhile, the volume of dangerous goods on the tracks rose 70 per cent between 2011 and 2019, according to the government’s rail traffic database.
Bigger numbers mean greater risk, said Mark Fleming, CN professor of safety culture at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
He pointed to a 2020 audit by the federal environmental and sustainable development commissioner, which found that Transport Canada “still had shortcomings in its oversight of dangerous goods, despite having made some progress.”
Much of the ongoing concerns around danger on the tracks boils down to oversight, technical standards and the sheer size of trains and hazardous freight shipped.
After Lac-Mégantic, Transport Canada launched an overhaul of safety management systems — a form of self-regulation where the government audits reports submitted by railways. But nearly a decade later, companies “are not yet effectively identifying hazards and mitigating risks,” the safety board determined last year.
“If you give the railways too free a hand, sometimes they make really poor decisions, and they’re not penalized for it,” said Ian Naish, a rail safety consultant who served as the TSB’s director of rail and pipeline investigations between 1998 and 2009.
“Not putting together a proper safety management plan, and getting away with it year after year, and not doing proper risk analyses when they’re changing operations — I’d like that to change.”
The Railway Association of Canada said the two biggest operators — Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd., both of which are categorized as Class 1 due to their size — have the best safety records in North America.
“For every railway and every railroader, safety is job one. Canadian Class 1s are industry leaders in safety and have lower train accident frequencies than their U.S. counterparts,” CEO Marc Brazeau said in an emailed statement.
Brazeau said the accident rate for both freight rail and dangerous goods has improved markedly over the past decade.
Nonetheless, safety deficiencies played a role in the disaster near Field, B.C., in February 2019, the safety board found. At -28 C temperatures, compressed air leaked out of the air brake system while the train was parked on a steep grade, causing the Canadian Pacific cars to creep forward after midnight before hurtling down a mountain and careening off a bridge into the Kicking Horse River, killing three workers.
The government should require automatic parking brakes and further upgrades to braking systems, said Campbell, even after stricter rules around brake use came into force after 2013 for railways.
“They’re still relying so heavily on 19th-century braking systems. Electro-pneumatic braking systems would impose a cost, but they would have prevented Lac-Mégantic,” Campbell said.
The slowest pace of change has arguably been around rail signalling — the trackside lights that authorize various train movements.
“If a crew member misses a signal, we still don’t have an automated train control system in Canada that will slow or stop a train if a crew doesn’t do it,” Fox said, noting the U.S. has had a form of it in place since 2020. Transport Canada has pledged to implement something similar by 2030.
The growing length of trains, which can run well over four kilometres long with hundreds of cars weighing more than 25,000 tonnes in total, poses another concern.
Derailments involving longer, heavier trains mean a “worse pileup,” said Naish.
Fatigue also remains an issue, even after new rules came into effect on May 25 that cap freight workers’ maximum shift length at 12 hours — down from 16 — while raising the minimum rest period between shifts to 10 hours at home and 12 hours when away from home, versus the previous six hours and eight hours, respectively.
But unheeded rules are of little use, Naish notes. On June 6, a Federal Court judge found CPKC guilty of contempt of court for employees working excessively long hours in 2018 and 2019. CPKC has vowed to appeal.
“Transport Canada, who’s the regulator, should use its teeth a little bit more than they do,” Naish said. “They’re just a little bit too gentle with the railways.”
Risks, spills and other accidents remain alarmingly high, he continued.
On April 15, a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed due to a track washout in rural Maine. It spilled diesel fuel and four lumber cars caught fire, on the same line and about 90 kilometres east of where the Lac-Mégantic accident unfolded.
“You stand back and say, are things getting better?” Naish asked. “If they are, I haven’t noticed it.”
Fox, who stepped into the role of safety board chair in 2014 — two days after that briefing to hundreds of grievers, including some of the 27 orphaned children — keeps on her desk a constant reference to the need to keep improving safety.
It’s a photograph of the streetscape of Lac-Mégantic from before the accident. In view are the Musi-Café — where 30 of the victims were killed when the fireball erupted at about 1:15 a.m. — and, in the distance, the local church.
“It is a daily reminder of what happened,” Fox said by phone from her office in Ottawa. “We don’t ever, ever want to see another Lac-Mégantic.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2023.
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