LAC-MÉGANTIC, QUE. - It wasn’t until the winter passed and the snow cleared on the train tracks running into this destroyed town where 47 people died in last year’s rail disaster town that John Giles saw for himself what his company had signed up for.
“There was a problem. We couldn’t see the true condition until the snow departed,” the head of the new Central Maine and Quebec Railway said in an interview. “I could travel over it and look at it and get a sense of how many bad ties there were and I was shocked.”
Giles’ firm closed in January on the sale of the bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Rail company, whose 72 cars of crude-oil cargo derailed on July 6, 2013, killing so many and wiping out Lac-Mégantic’s downtown core. Now it is focusing on the safety of its rail network, with plans to replace 13 kilometres of worn out track, upgrade signal crossings where the track crosses roads and replace 24,000 wooden cross ties, the blocks on which the rails sit.
Safety, in the wake of the tragic derailment, comes before business considerations in a year that has seen a flurry of new regulations and tighter rules intended to boost the security of rail transport in Canada.
“The short answer is yes, I think we are better off,” said Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the national mayoral lobby group that has championed the fight for stricter rail standards in the country.
A lot has been done since the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic. The federal government brought in rules preventing trains carrying dangerous goods from being left unattended, instituting tougher braking standards, limiting speeds through populated areas and banning one-man crews on trains carrying hazardous materials such as combustible crude oil.
Some safety advocates, however, believe the fundamental risks of transporting dangerous goods have not been addressed in an industry where shipments of crude oil on trains are expected to triple by 2016 to 700,000 barrels a day from 200,000.
“There was a particularly fateful set of circumstances that made this a disaster on the scale that it was,” said Mark Winfield, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University.
There was a fire on the train, which was parked and unattended on the main track at the top of a long, downhill slope. There was the failure of the air brakes and the alleged insufficient application of the train’s handbrakes. It occurred on a Saturday night, when dozens of people had gathered at a popular local bar and others were sleeping in their apartments, tragically unaware.
“Those things are just the fates,” said Winfield, “but I think that how a train ended up in that location, with that cargo, in that condition, points to much larger and much more systemic failures.”
Those include the so-called Safety Management System requirements, which put the onus on rail companies to come up with and enforce their own safety regimes, which are then audited by the federal government.
“It may be fine as a supplement to a regulatory regime, but it’s not a substitute for Transport Canada setting the rules and Transport Canada enforcing the rules. That’s the fundamental problem,” Winfield said.
For what it is worth, Giles, who is busy setting up his new railway on MM&A’s old tracks, says he would never have signed off on one of his trains carrying that amount of oil being left unattended for any length of time in the early morning hours of July 6, 2013.
No mayor would have approved of it either. That’s why, 20 days after the deadly train derailment, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities started working on finding a way to improve rail safety in the country and looking at what needed to change.
Woodside said the National Municipal Rail Safety Working Group, of which Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche is a member, has claimed several victories over the last year.
First among those changes concerns the DOT-111 tanker cars that must be upgraded or taken out of service by 2017 if they don’t meet tougher standards. The rail industry had been pushing for a 10-year transition, but the FCM succeeded in getting Ottawa to set a three-year window.
The real success of the ban will only come if the United States adopts a similar standard in phasing out the older tanker cars.
The second change was forcing rail companies to produce annual reports listing the materials being carried along particular routes. The goal is to ensure fire crews and other first responders have the training and equipment necessary to respond to crashes, spills and fires, whether they happen in a farmer’s field, near water or along a main downtown street.
“When you go back far enough, towns were built around the railway, but we have since come into a situation where we’re transporting a lot of different things that we didn’t transport back then, that didn’t create those kinds of serious situations that we’re now experiencing,” Woodside said.
Where many once gazed romantically at rail cars rumbling along a track, or raged at a lengthy road crossing, the residents of Lac-Mégantic are now haunted by the tracks that cross through their old downtown core like a scar. They are all too aware of the potent power of the track, even if they understand it is a vital piece of the town’s economic health.
“I do understand that and I think it’s absolutely natural. What we’re going to try to do is communicate to the cities, the municipalities and towns where we travel — starting with Lac-Mégantic — and we’re going to keep them conversant with the changes we’re making,” said Giles, a longtime railway executive.
“We’re going to work hard to try to remove the shadow of doubt that hangs over the town today.”
The CMQ railway has run a dozen trains through the town since taking over from MM&A. For now, the loads are inert raw materials like wood that come into the Tafisa factory, the town’s main employer, and leave as particle board destined for Ikea stores.
The drivers move their loads slowly, carefully. They would tiptoe along the tracks if they could.
But Lac-Mégantic residents are bracing for the day that oil once again rumbles through their town in the forests of eastern Quebec. It won’t happen soon, says Giles. Maybe never again.
“I have only one refinery in my service area and it’s in Saint John (New Brunswick). Today (the oil) is moving over the Canadian National line into Saint John. Other crude is being moved into Saint John along barges on the Atlantic Coast,” he said.
“I don’t know that there’s any demand for the movement of crude over our railroad . . . I don’t know that we’ll ever handle crude shipments again.”