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Crews continue to dig through the rubble inside the "red zone" in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 14, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Crews continue to dig through the rubble inside the "red zone" in Lac-Mégantic, PQ on July 14, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

MM&A to tighten train safety rules, but chairman doubts need for new laws Add to ...

The chairman of a U.S.-based railway whose train crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Que., earlier this month says the firm will stop leaving freight unattended on the main track, even as he questioned the value of additional government regulations.

The Transportation Safety Board called on the federal government last week to tighten its rules on unsupervised trains after a runaway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train jumped the tracks in downtown Lac-Mégantic, setting off explosions and fire that killed as many as 47 people. The agency said stronger policies are needed to govern the number of handbrakes that must be set on a parked train and to determine whether dangerous goods can be left alone on the tracks.

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In an interview with The Globe and Mail, MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt called the TSB’s suggestions “reasonable,” but added that more regulation of the rail industry might not make a difference when the “vast majority” of accidents are caused by violation of an existing rule.

“You can have more and more safety rules, and all of that, but if the compliance doesn’t improve, then it’s not going to make any difference,” Mr. Burkhardt said.

Canada’s second-largest rail operator, Canadian Pacific Railway, changed its policies on leaving trains unattended 10 days ago, before the TSB warnings.

CP told staff in an internal bulletin July 12 that it believed Transport Canada was about to force the industry to adopt new rules, including a prohibition on parking dangerous goods on a main track and more detailed policies on applying handbrakes.

Canadian National Railway, the country’s largest rail operator, said last week that it believes its policies on securing trains are already strong, but is also reviewing them in light of the disaster at Lac-Mégantic.

Mr. Burkhardt told reporters in Lac-Mégantic earlier this month that he believes the company’s engineer failed to set enough handbrakes on the tanker cars to secure the train. But he said the TSB’s warning against leaving a train with dangerous goods parked on a main track is a “sensible change” and one his company plans to implement when its main route through Quebec is running again.

“We recognize that it is a change from what has been the norm in the North American rail industry until now,” Mr. Burkhardt said. “But we think it’s a sensible change and we don’t think that we should be waiting for a final rule-making process to conclude when it’s a change that we agree with.”

The TSB also noted that current federal regulations do not require rail operators to lock the windows and doors of locomotives – which can be left with their motors running – on unattended trains.

The Illinois-based chairman said the company still needs to think about the ramifications of locking locomotives and review its policies on braking to determine if they need to be changed. “Our people have been involved in other things and haven’t been able to sit down and complete a review as was suggested by the TSB,” Mr. Burkhardt said.

A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the minister was unavailable for an interview Sunday. But Ashley Kelahear said last week that Ms. Raitt had instructed Transport Canada to review the TSB’s warnings “on an expedited basis.”

MM&A’s main route through Quebec remains at a standstill as investigators pick through the rubble in downtown Lac-Mégantic. The company continues to run short-haul operations in Quebec and Maine, Mr. Burkhardt said, but those routes are too short to require trains to be left unattended mid-trip.

Quebec’s provincial police said Sunday that about 200 residents of Lac-Mégantic’s “evacuated zone,” a term used for the crash site, will be able to return briefly to their homes Tuesday to collect belongings. Residents will be escorted by police and given a box to gather items. They will also have a chance to discard any rotting food in their homes.

While most homes in the area have little or no visible damage, there are concerns that oil might have leaked into the sewage system and caused unseen problems, police Sergeant Benoît Richard said. It is unlikely residents would be able to return permanently “any time soon,” he added.

Employees of several agencies, including the Sûreté du Québec, also returned to work at the crash site Sunday after taking Saturday off. Cranes could be seen moving rubble among the derailed oil cars. Dozens of people stood on the steps of Ste-Agnès church in the heart of downtown to get a glimpse of the activity.

Follow us on Twitter: @kimmackrael, @danbitonti

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