Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Night a Train Destroyed a Town

Fellow Blogger, Leland Weiss - Lost Rail - uncovered an absolutely stunning graphic, taking the reader step by step through the recent rail disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (Click here for full scalable graphic.)

The name, Mégantic, comes from the Abenaki word, “namesokanji,k” which means “where fish stay”. However, the Abenakis were not the first to inhabit the region since archeological digs reveal the presence of Amerindians more than 12,000 years ago, which makes it the oldest known site of human occupation in Quebec! And "Lac" of course, is French for "lake."

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) Railroad is a Class Two line. MM&A is one of of two Canadian railroads operating one person train "crews." The other is Quebec, North Shore & Labrador.

According to Ed  Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, owners of the MM&A, there is less "distraction" operating a single member crew. (Not to mention $70k annual savings in wages and benefits!)

So how is the Single Train Crew Concept working out?

One measurement is Safety.  MM&A has been involved in 129 accidents, including 77 derailments since 2003. Its track record in the U.S. is no better. According to U.S. Federal Railroad Administration data, Rail World had 36.1 accidents per million miles travelled compared to the national average of 14.6 accidents last year.


Actually, there were two disasters on the MM&A railroad; the initial explosion and fire created by the runaway oil train on Saturday July 6th. The second train wreck was the appearance of Edward Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, Inc., at Lac-Mégantic,  four days following the accident.

Mr. Burkhardt, without even looking at the wreckage, assigned blame to:

•  The Nantes fire department, 11km (6.8 miles) up hill from Lac-Mégantic that responded to as of yet unspecified fire on a locomotive two hours before the wreck. They followed protocol. Shut the locomotive down, and contacted MM&A dispatch.

•  Then Mr. Burkhardt blamed a track maintenance worker, who was dispatched to the scene of the locomotive fire. The track-worker, not qualified to operate locomotives, updated the dispatcher that the train was secure, and left the scene.

•  Still in need of a scapegoat, Mr. Burkhardt came out publicly, declaring Tom Harding, the engineer who tied up the train at Nantes, speculating that engineer Harding had not followed protocol for securing his train. And immediately suspended him, with pay.

•  Now we receive word that Mr. Burkhardt is seeking a "mysterious one-armed man," seen furtively leaving the scene …

Now bear in mind that Burkhardt's wild accusations were made even as Transportation Safety Board investigators were spooling up their investigation! (Nice to know your boss "has your back!") And the Sûreté du Québec, treating the area as a crime scene, have secured the five locomotives, not allowing anyone, most especially MM&A personnel, access to them.

Finally, adding insult to injury, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche says Ed Burkhardt backed out of a scheduled meeting late Wednesday afternoon at the last minute, citing "scheduling" problems. He did not apologize. He made no effort Thursday to reschedule, she said. He left town instead. Roy-Laroche, who lost two cousins in the disaster, said Burkhardt's actions showed a lack of respect for the devastated residents.

Burkhardt noted his net worth had gone down, that he’d been working hard at his desk, 20 hours a day and was tired — small comfort to grieving relatives.

Some residents of Cote Saint-Luc on the island of Montreal, are upset to learn the derailed train in Lac-Mégantic was assembled at their local rail yard, and traveled through Farnham before heading to Nantes, where it was parked for the night before it came loose.

"The Night a Train Destroyed a Town" is cited as the worst Canadian railroad accident in more that 150 years.

The train, consisting of 5 locomotives, an idler car, and 72 tankers, was transporting crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

It left the tracks at an estimated speed of 63 mph (101 kph) smack dab in the middle of Lac-Mégantic. Five cars derailed but did not burn; Engineer Tom Harding, using a track mobile, pulled eight cars away from the wreck.

The five-unit power pack did not derail, and was found about 1 km (3,281 ft) further down track.

The resulting fire and explosions evoked memories of the Mississauga incident in 1979. A 106-car train filled with chemicals — both explosive and poisonous — derailed in Mississauga, forcing the evacuation of over 200,000 people.

Finally, Common Sense and Reason! 

 "At the TSB we hold by the theory that no accident is ever caused by one thing and it's always a series of things," she said. "And it always involves the organization. It never comes down to one individual." - Wendy Tadros, Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada, comparable to US National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB.

Firefighters from over 60 forces across Canada and the U.S. are assisting in searching the red zone, facing extreme heat and dangerous fumes from contaminated soil. Described as being like an "archeological dig," it will take weeks of digging through rubble, involving specialized crews.

As of this writing, (July 14th), the death toll stands at 35.
The disaster destroyed the local library, including irreplaceable items outlining the history of the town and the surrounding area. Nothing is left of the building - which bordered the railway tracks - except ash. Including books, some 60,000 items are gone.

For further developments, I highly recommend the Montreal Gazette on-line site. They have provided excellent in-depth coverage throughout this event.

Finally, I'd like hearing your opinion about the wisdom of running a one-person train crew, especially if you are a current or retired rail employee.  Please leave a comment below.

3 Comments - Click here:

Unknown said...

I am very worried for the people I've seen on this post, such an horrible disaster..We should always pray to the God's will..All I can say is "Great Post"..Thanks!

Anonymous said...

1 - set off the dangerous train in the siding for the night.

2-install a derail in front of the lead diesel engine before leaving .

Unknown said...

As a past railroad engineer/conductor (NOT from the MMA), I still subscribe to the practice of, at the VERY least, 2 people in the cab, engineer & conductor. Safety issues rise with less and less crew members on board. It was always practice that the head-end crew inspect their train, while in motion, to look for defects. Each crew member would (or SHOULD) look back at their train on each curve. For a one man crew, to DO that, would mean that the engineer would have to leave his station and walk across the cab to observe that side of his train while it was still in motion. To do that, it means the control of the train would be "given up" until the engineer returned to his seat. As I say, ALL trains should have at the VERY least two crew members in the lead locomotive, PERIOD!!!! Lastly, it would seem to be common sense NOT to park a hazmat train on a grade and leave it unattended. To do something such as leaving a standing train of ANY kind on a grade, parked, is just plan stupid. Just my 2 cents worth..... Davey P in Vermont, 90 miles south of Lac Megantic

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