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Rail workers dispute lobby group’s take on Lac Mégantic disaster

An alliance of North American rail workers is challenging the Railway Association of Canada over the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, saying the industry's chief lobby group in Ottawa has misrepresented key facts about the deadly tragedy to Canadians.

In a letter to The Globe and Mail, Railroad Workers United (RWU) said its members are "deeply disturbed" by the Railway Association's response to an article last month that revealed the disaster in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., would likely have been prevented if a simple, 10-second procedure to set one of the train's brakes had been employed the night of the accident. The railway involved, Montreal Maine and Atlantic, had instructed its employees never to use that particular brake, known as the automatic air brake.

After the revelation was published in The Globe and Mail, Railway Association of Canada president Michael Bourque dismissed the idea in an open letter, saying railways "do not rely on" the automatic brakes for longer than two hours.

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Since then, numerous train engineers have contacted The Globe to contest the RAC's assertions, including the RWU, which said it could produce "many thousands of certified and licenced operating crew members" who believe not using the automatic brake as a back-up measure to secure trains is dangerous.

As the chief lobbyist for the industry, the RAC has the ear of federal politicians on rail safety, and there is evidence those conversations help shape Canada's rail regulations. A July 27, 2015, letter obtained by The Globe, sent to Mr. Bourque from Transport Canada, thanks the lobbyist for his suggested revision to the rule governing the securing of trains, known as Rule 112. "I am pleased to advise you that the revised Rule 112 … has been approved."

It is not known what change came from the RAC's suggestion.

The lobby group's contention that the brake would not have helped on the night of the Lac-Megantic disaster is puzzling to the RWU, which is comprised of senior railway workers across North America who speak on behalf of other employees. The RWU said the revelation that the automatic brake was not set the night of the disaster is shocking, and needed to come to light.

"Mr. Bourque's assertion that the use, or lack thereof, of the automatic brake is irrelevant to the disaster at Lac-Mégantic is preposterous," said Ron Kaminkow, a locomotive engineer and general secretary of the RWU. "The use of air brakes as part of securing unattended trains is imperative. To do otherwise is foolhardy and can only court disasters like the one at Lac-Mégantic." The RWU letter is signed by employees of North America's eight largest railways, including Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

On July 6, 2013, a runaway train loaded with more than 70 tankers of highly explosive crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, causing massive explosions that gutted the town and killed 47 people. The train had been parked for the night and left unattended. Not all of its brakes were set.

Three types of brakes are used to hold a train in place: hand brakes, which are wheel-locking devices set by hand on each rail car; the independent brake, which is an air brake that holds the locomotive wheels in place; and the automatic brake, which is a series of air brakes on the wheels of each rail car that holds them in place and is easily set from the locomotive. Under federal rules, hand brakes are considered the primary means of securing an unattended train, since air brakes can leak over time if the engine powering them shuts down, and some can eventually release.

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Mr. Kaminkow said experienced train operators know the automatic air brakes will hold a train in place for days, and often weeks, because even though some of the brakes on the wheels might leak, most do not lose pressure even if the locomotive powering them shuts down. As such, the automatic brakes are regularly used by engineers as a backup to hand brakes. On the night of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the engineer did not set enough hand brakes to hold the train, and set only the independent air brake on the locomotive, leaving the automatic brakes off. When fire crews extinguished a fire in the parked train's locomotive that night, they shut the engine down, which caused the independent brakes to release slowly.

The fact that the air brakes on the rest of the train – the automatic brake – had not been set emerged during the Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the tragedy. On page 105 of the 179-page its report, the TSB said the automatic brake would likely have prevented the disaster, since there is a good chance it would have held the 72 tanker cars until the next morning.

Mr. Bourque has asserted the automatic brake cannot be relied upon for more than a few hours, but several train engineers who contacted The Globe said the brakes would have easily kept the train in place for several days. Ed Michael, an engineer who ran freight trains for 42 years until retiring in 2012, said parking a train without using the automatic brake as a backup safety measure is "unequivocally negligent." He added: "It is true that in a situation of long-term securement, it is likely that some individual cars may experience a leakage of pressure in their brake cylinders. But it is also unlikely that a majority of them may leak off.… I personally have seen freight cars with their brakes still applied after weeks of securement."

Fritz Edler, a U.S. engineer with the RWU who has run trains for more than 25 years, said the organization recently spoke to an employee inside the MMA railroad who told them the company had a policy of not using the brakes because cold winter weather sometimes prevented the automatic brakes from releasing, causing delays in getting the train moving again. Mr. Edler pointed out the Lac-Mégantic accident happened in the summer, and questions why the Canadian government allowed the railway to operate with such a policy.

"This is a shocking thing to us," Mr. Edler said, adding that he has secured trains for much longer. "I would go as far as to say it is almost a guarantee that the use of the automatic brakes on the train in that situation would have prevented the problem."

After being told that the Railway Association's open letter contained several points that were being contested by people within the rail industry, Mr. Bourque retracted the RAC's letter on Monday. However, Mr. Bourque reiterated his stand that the RAC does not believe the automatic brake should be used as a backup to the hand brakes for very long, because it can sometimes fail.

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Mr. Kaminkow contended that just because some of the automatic air brakes might eventually fail does not mean railways should not deploy them as a backup, particularly when carrying explosive crude oil. "Handbrakes too have been known to fail, but that doesn't lead us to the conclusion … that handbrakes should not be applied," Mr. Kaminkow said.

Since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, federal regulations now require railways to use a specific number of hand brakes as a primary means of securing a train, along with a secondary measure that includes the automatic brake.

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Senior Writer

Grant Robertson is an award-winning journalist who has been recognized for investigative journalism, sports writing and business reporting. More

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