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The Globe and Mail

As Lac-Mégantic proved, braking procedures matter

Ron Kaminkow is a locomotive engineer and general secretary of Railroad Workers United

Railroad Workers United, whose members run trains across North America, is deeply disturbed by a recent letter posted online, and subsequently deleted, by Michael Bourque, president and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada. The letter was in response to The Globe's front-page story of March 7, "Ten second procedure may have averted Lac-Mégantic disaster."

While we agree that railroad workers must never rely solely upon air brakes to secure a train by themselves, no one except Mr. Bourque has suggested that course of action.

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Mr. Bourque's assertion that the use (or lack thereof) of the automatic brake is irrelevant to the disaster at Lac-Mégantic is preposterous. Had the automatic air brake been applied to full service position (which is an essential component in securing unattended trains in the U.S. for decades) it is extremely unlikely that the brakes would have "bled off" sufficiently on 72 cars to allow the train to roll as it did. What we know with absolute certainty is that not using air brakes on that train likely resulted in death and destruction.

Hand brakes are always necessary when securing equipment. When equipment is left unattended, with or without the locomotives attached, railroad workers are required by rule to set handbrakes. But just because crews must not rely on the air brakes to hold the train by themselves, this should not be taken to imply that we dispense with the air brakes altogether and leave them in the released position. To rely solely on handbrakes alone is absurd when the option exists to quickly and easily apply air brakes on each and every car in the train. If just one handbrake were to fail on a cut of cars with no air brakes applied, the train could easily begin to roll. Yes, handbrakes too have been known to fail but that doesn't lead us to Mr. Bourque's conclusion – that handbrakes should not be applied.

To leave a train secured as a matter of corporate policy, without air brakes and without derail protection of any kind on a very steep grade, relying only upon hand brakes is irresponsible and reckless. This was MM&A's policy at the time of the tragedy.

Transport Canada had nothing to say about MM&A's policy, and that's why lack of supervision by Transport Canada, and lack of training by MM&A, were listed in the 18 factors that contributed to the accident. The Railway Association of Canada would like to hide behind the fact that the automatic brake wasn't specifically mentioned in those 18 factors. But it avoids noting that use of air brakes is in fact covered in the Transportation Safety Board's report as a consideration in the wreck.

In the wake of the wreck on July 6, 2013, the Canadian Rail Operating Rules were amended to mandate that all unattended trains on the main be secured with either air brakes and/or at least "one other additional means of physical securement" in addition to the hand brakes. This pretty much says it all.

The Railway Association of Canada tried to impugn The Globe and Mail for protecting its sources, who rightly know that railroad managers can be vindictive. That's why "being railroaded" is a phrase in the English language. But if the association wants to roll out "experts," there are certainly many thousands of certified and licensed operating crew members in Canada and the U.S, who can publically refute it.

We believe that every engineer and train crew member in North America would agree that 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.

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