It was only after the Lac-Mégantic derailment that Transport Canada ruled hazardous materials trains could no longer be operated by a single crewman, and that trains could not be left unattended on a main track.
Until that point, the railway sector had been anxious to convince government that its rules were fine, and that nothing needed changing. According to the federal lobbyist registry, the Railway Association of Canada requested in January of this year to meet with government officials “to assure them that current regulations for dangerous goods transportation are sufficient.” The same request was made again in June.
But on July 8, two days after the Lac-Mégantic derailment, the railway association submitted a new version of its request for meetings. This time, the line about current regulations being “sufficient” was conspicuously absent.
Desensitized to risk
Not only did railways not have to seek clearance to start running full trains of crude through cities and towns, governments and regulators have failed to keep pace with the growth of the industry. The trains operate in an environment where there are fewer and fewer inspectors to ensure safety.
This allows railways to operate with very little scrutiny, in an industry where things go wrong with trains all the time – and the Lac-Mégantic train was no different. The Globe has learned that after the train left North Dakota, being pulled by Canadian Pacific, it was actually carrying 78 oil tankers. However, before the train was handed off to MM&A, six cars were removed from the train. When asked about the problem by The Globe, the railway said the cars were removed for unspecified mechanical problems, but refused to elaborate on the reason. The railways are not required to provide greater detail to the public.
The oversight of trains on the rails has diminished dramatically in recent years amid federal cost-cutting and deregulation, including the significant drop in the number of inspectors since the oil unit trains began to roll, said Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“Why did Transport Canada not strengthen enforcement of its dangerous goods regulatory system to handle the spectacular increase of oil transport by rail that has occurred in the last five years?” Mr. Campbell said.
But the shift to fewer regulations has pervaded the sector since 2001, when changes were made to the federal Railway Act that gave the railways control over their own safety management systems rather than having protocol prescribed by the government, which Transport Canada thought would be a more efficient and less-costly system. The plans cover everything from track maintenance to safety and security training.
While railways submit these plans to Transport Canada for scrutiny, they are not closely watched to see if companies are complying after the fact, according to a November report by the Auditor General. As a result, Transport Canada and its inspectors can’t have a clear picture of what railways like MM&A are doing. Much of the time, the railways are regulating themselves.
Lax federal oversight in Canada and the U.S. – the rules are kept closely aligned to expedite trade and commerce – has meant trains can pass through cities and towns carrying what they want.
Asked if regulators have any say in the rise of oil unit trains, Nate Moulton, the head of railways for the Maine Department of Transportation, said “not that I’m aware of.” Maine is one of the states that North Dakota oil trains pass through. “It’s allowed,” he said of the oil train boom. “But is it good practice? Fuels are something that have always been moved. Just not in these quantities.”
In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the railway industry has quoted statistics stating that more than 99.9 per cent of oil shipments by rail arrive at their destination without incident. Railway proponents have also argued that, in many places, towns grew up around the tracks and therefore inherit the risks associated with being located near rails. A century ago, however, when many of the laws that govern the rail system were originally formulated, trains were moving much safer goods, not 100 cars of volatile crude.
Steve Vachon is among those still trying to make sense of what happened in Lac-Mégantic, where he grew up. His father was an engineer who ran trains down those same tracks in Quebec. Back then, oil was never shipped in such huge quantities. There was no such thing as an oil unit train.
“I think we’ve become desensitized [to risk],” Mr. Vachon said. “You see the oil come through – you see it all the time, there’s a lot of it – and you just kind of convince yourself that it’s safe.”