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Inspectors for the transportation of dangerous goods (TDG) inspect a train on the track approximately 10km (6 miles) outside of the site of a derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 7, 2013. A driverless freight train carrying tankers of petroleum products derailed at high speed and exploded into a giant fireball in the middle of the small Canadian town of Lac-Megantic early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings and leaving an unknown number of people feared missing.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

The deadly train derailment in Quebec has placed a spotlight on the Maine-based company's strategy of assigning one person to handle each stage of the trip.

Officials at Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway confirmed Sunday that there was one locomotive engineer, who left the train unattended late Friday night, part of a routine in which the worker departs at the end of a shift to clear the way for the next engineer to be seated on the right-hand side of the locomotive.

In the United States, union leaders have decried the growing practice by some American railways to deploy a lone employee on a shift. While companies argue that there have been advances in remote-control technology to help guide trains, a group of workers produced bumper stickers last fall that read: "No single-employee train crews. Protect your family. Protect your community."

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North of the border, Canada's two largest railways assign two members of the "running trades" on each shift, notably one engineer on the right side and one conductor, who is seated on the left side of the locomotive. Having two people aboard at the front provides an extra level of safety when going around curves, for instance, because the engineer and conductor are able to check their side of the track.

Syndicat des Métallos, which is part of the United Steelworkers, represents 75 MMA employees in Quebec. A union spokesman said Syndicat des Métallos extends its deepest sympathies to those affected by the tragedy, but cautioned that the root cause of the derailment has yet to be determined.

While MMA is based in the United States, its operations fall under Canadian jurisdiction federally when trains move through Canada. MMA is a regional freight carrier – known as a "short line," in industry lingo.

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference's members include those who work for the country's two largest freight carriers, Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

Short lines and major railways have gradually scaled back staffing levels over the years, said TCRC president Rex Beatty.

"The trains are very much secured when they're left alone," he said in an interview. "It is prevalent in the industry that railcars are left alone or unattended, but there are also rules for them to be secured. The issue is how this particular MMA train was able to do what it did, and I for one will be very interested in what the outcome will be."

Mr. Beatty also cautioned that it is still early in the investigation of what went wrong to trigger the early Saturday morning derailment at MMA, but he said he is concerned about general staff reductions over the years at CN and CP.

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CN and CP have two-person crews on locomotive duty. Engineers and conductors at the two major freight carriers typically have gross pay ranging from $75,000 to $125,000 a year, though those positions at short lines tend to be lower paid.

Canadian railway officials wouldn't speculate on the potential cause behind the MMA derailment, but emphasized that the industry has a solid safety record.

"This tragedy notwithstanding, movement of hazardous material by rail not only can be, but is being handled safely in the vast majority of instances," CN spokesman Mark Hallman said in a statement. "CN has comprehensive safety programs in place designed to prevent rail accidents, including those involving crude oil and other chemicals."

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