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Workers and firefighters work on the remains of downtown Lac-Megantic. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

The horrific explosion and fire at Lac-Mégantic, Que., is above all a shocking tragedy for a community, the causes of which are not yet known, but it also invites two provisional observations.

First, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train was left unattended overnight; it was a false economy not to have an employee present through the night to keep an eye on a shipment of hazardous materials. Second, the probability of accidents involving trains carrying crude oil has been greatly increased by the shortage of pipeline capacity in North America.

MMA has advanced the hypothesis that some unknown person shut down the train's locomotive after the engineer left for the night, along with the rest of the crew, and that the shutdown "may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place." Of course, it was right for the engineer and his colleagues to get a good night's sleep at a local hotel, before resuming the journey. But one night shift for some other employee, to keep an eye on the train, might well have averted the disaster. Common sense would suggest that a locomotive left running overnight should not be unattended.

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The amount of rail transport of oil in North America has increased enormously, and unexpectedly, since 2008.The crude oil in this case was being transported from the Bakken formation in North Dakota – part of a phenomenon that was discussed by the International Energy Agency in May, in its Medium-Term Oil Market Report 2013.

At first, railways became active in carrying oil to Gulf Coast refineries, because of congestion in the pipelines of the Midwest. But now they are also bringing it to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Rail transport costs somewhat more than moving oil through pipelines, and is more accident-prone, but there is more flexibility in access and timing.

Pipelines are clearly safer. It is greatly to be hoped that the government of the United States will soon approve the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would not only move crude oil from the Bakken formation, but also crude from Alberta. Moreover, the proposals to enable an existing TransCanada Corp. natural-gas pipeline route to also move oil from the West to Central and Eastern Canada should be considered all the more seriously.

For the foreseeable future, the transport of oil by rail will continue. Both Canada and the United States must make sure that their railways are capable of handling this traffic, without more disasters similar to the one at Lac-Mégantic on the weekend.

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