The Transportation Safety Board has made five recommendations after its probe of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster:
1. Transport Canada must take a more hands-on role when it comes to railways’ safety management systems – making sure not just that they exist, but that they are working and that they are effective. (New recommendation.)
What it means: The TSB reserved its most pointed criticisms in the report for Transport Canada, which it said had failed to provide proper oversight of the industry to ensure railways were operating safely. After an era of deregulation, railways were allowed to file their own Safety Management Systems, which are approved by Ottawa. But the TSB said Transport Canada has not been monitoring railways to see if they are living up to what they promise on paper. Had Transport Canada done this, it should have noticed problems with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and its “weak safety culture,” the TSB said. “They have to be audited with sufficient depth and with sufficient frequency.”
2. Canadian railways must put in place additional physical defences to prevent runaway trains. (New recommendation.)
What it means: The train broke loose because its brakes weren’t set properly, allowing the cargo of crude oil to roll down a hill into the town at high speed before it exploded. The TSB said it wants Transport Canada to require trains to use wheel chocks for parked trains, or install more modern braking technology that is better at holding trains in place than current equipment.
3. Emergency response assistance plans must be created when large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons, such as oil, are shipped. (Recommendation made in January, 2014.)
What it means: When the train blew up, the equipment needed to extinguish a large oil fire wasn’t at the ready. Crews had to scramble to borrow equipment such as foam trucks from nearby cities. Emergency Response Assistance Plans require that, if hazardous materials are being shipped, the appropriate equipment for dealing with an emergency is placed at spots along the route. Previously crude oil did not require such response plans. It now does. Though the steps won’t prevent another accident, it will hopefully mean the fire doesn’t burn for days, as it did in Lac-Mégantic.
4. Railway companies should conduct strategic route-planning and enhance train operations for all trains carrying dangerous goods. (Recommendation made in June, 2014.)
What it means: The TSB wants railways to choose their routes carefully when shipping dangerous goods, which could mean diverting some shipments around populated areas. However, this recommendation may have the least impact. The railway industry has fought any suggestion that route planning is a realistic solution, arguing that moving such shipments around populated areas is logistically prohibitive and would add cost. The railway industry is not giving up this fight, despite the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic.
5. Enhanced protection standards must be put in place for Class 111 tank cars. (Recommendation made in July, 2014.)
What it means: The railcars that exploded in the Lac-Mégantic disaster, an aging fleet known as DOT-111 cars, have garnered a lot of attention since plans were already under way to phase them out in the future in favour of stronger rail cars that were less susceptible to puncture. However, the impact of this move is overstated in many reports. The oil that exploded at Lac-Megantic was so volatile that it would likely tear through any DOT-111 railcar, old or new. This will have minimal impact on an accident like that seen in Lac-Megantic.
What is missing from the report?
The TSB made no effort to address the problem of volatile oil in its report into the disaster. In particular, the oil that exploded was considered to be extremely light, meaning it had properties that were similar to gasoline, and was prone to gasification before and during transit. Those vapours are believed to have been the reason why the explosions at Lac-Mégatnic were so unusually large. Some observers were expecting the TSB to make a recommendation on degasifying crude to make it less prone to exploding, but the TSB avoided addressing the issue of so-called dangerous oil.
What happens now?
Transport Canada must digest the report and decide which recommendations to implement. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt wouldn’t commit to following all of the recommendations, but said she asked her department to find “concrete” ways to respond to them, likely within 90 days. Although the government isn’t bound to follow the watchdog’s recommendations, Transport Canada is unlikely to shrug them off. If any of them aren’t implemented, the government will have to provide a compelling explanation as to why the steps are not possible.