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Emergency personnel continue to comb through the debris in the search for remains of the missing in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 9, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Emergency personnel continue to comb through the debris in the search for remains of the missing in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 9, 2013.

(PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why towns are powerless to stop another disaster like Lac-Mégantic Add to ...

An investigation into the disaster and its causes.

The first steam locomotive to arrive in Lac La Biche back in 1915 was greeted with cheers. Today the 100-car oil trains that run through the heart of the Northern Alberta town are met with a mixture of anger and worry.

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The tracks bisect the town. The hospital lies on one side, the fire station on the other. Over the past five years, as the oil boom escalated and more and more bitumen from Fort McMurray was shipped by rail, the oil trains grew long enough to block all the town’s railway crossings for extended periods of time.

“We’ve had blockings up to 45 minutes,” Mayor Aurel Langevin said. “If we have an ambulance that’s waiting to get to the hospital and it’s caught up in this traffic, there could be some very serious consequences.” And what is now a few trains a day will likely increase. “We’ve received some notice, some forecasts [from the oil industry], that we can expect up to eight trains a day coming through our community – eight trains of 100 cars or more,” the mayor said.

One might think the town would have the ability to tell the railway to manage the crossings better. But the plight of Lac La Biche illustrates the problems that cities and towns face in dealing with railways in their own backyard: They have no power.

The power balance – or imbalance – was thrust into the national spotlight in July when Lac-Mégantic erupted in flames in the worst railway disaster in Canadian history. The train, carrying 72 cars of explosive crude, derailed in the Quebec town, killing 47 people. But when the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway began moving large amounts of oil through town on a regular basis, the people living there weren’t consulted. The town had no say.

Even before Lac-Mégantic, though, 2013 had become the year when long-simmering tensions between Canada’s federally regulated railways and the country’s municipalities bubbled to the surface. From British Columbia and Alberta to Manitoba and Quebec, the disputes have differed in specific causes, but all stem from the new era of moving oil and related products in mass amounts by rail – and the longer trains associated with the oil boom.

Bestowed with federal powers that date back to the writing of the Constitution, when railways were nation-builders, the industry lies out of the reach of lawmakers at the provincial and municipal levels. Federal legislation ensured that a national network of rails could be created and that companies weren’t hindered by a patchwork of rules varying from city to city or province to province, slowing the pace of commerce.

“The provinces and the municipalities have no authority over these federal railways,” said Kenneth Peel, a Toronto lawyer specializing in Canadian railway law. “So a complaint about how they’re running their business, by and large, is not something the federal railway companies have to pay legal attention to.”

ENGINES OF COMMERCE

Railways move $200-billion worth of goods across Canada each year, according to the Railway Association of Canada. Most household products, from clothes to appliances and chemicals, likely encountered the country’s railway system at some point.

The industry is also crucial in moving some of the most hazardous materials. When cities require chlorine to operate their water-treatment plants, for example, they often rely on railways to deliver that extremely dangerous cargo.

But with federal regulations governing the railways, there are few avenues of recourse for the people who live in the cities and towns through which the trains pass. In the case of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a Globe and Mail investigation found the federal government placed no added safety restrictions on the industry’s decision to move mass quantities of potentially dangerous crude and that warnings about the explosiveness of the oil were ignored.

Ten days before the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe shook the country, another rail accident – the derailment of a Canadian Pacific train in Calgary – had already become a poster child for railway-versus-city dysfunction.

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