Who is to blame for Quebec rail disaster?


They even make movies about runaway trains, most recently “Unstoppable” (2010), starring Denzel Washington. That one had a happy ending. But the runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad train, initiating the derailment and the catastrophic fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, has not had a happy ending. It is the worst freight railroad accident in North American history.

Any other rail accidents approaching a similar loss of life have involved passenger trains, and virtually all the victims were passenger or crew members. Here all of the victims were residents or visitors to Lac-Mégantic.

There were some 30 buildings destroyed—incinerated—by the fire initiated by the derailment, and there is no reasonable doubt that all the missing residents are dead, probably burned beyond recognition, not just as individuals, but even as identifiable human remains. A primary challenge will be locating human remains among the debris, which is largely all the same color after being exposed to fire for such a long period, says Tracy Rogers, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Toronto.

“Because of the range of conditions that bodies may be found in, it takes a person with a lot of experience to differentiate between what might belong to a human from what is a piece of a building, for example.” It is a virtual certainty that the death toll is going to be registered eventually as 50-60 people. All of those reported missing in the small town are presumed to be dead.

Lac-Mégantic is a very small town, 6000 people, of whom 98% speak French as a first language. The town is interlaced with overlapping networks of friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. The grief, horror, and psychic pain must be overwhelming.

Lac-Mégantic’s mayor abruptly cut off a reporter: “Listen, do not ask me any more questions. … I just can’t talk about it.” Roy LaFontaine, a contractor who was intermittently employed by the MM&A to do local track maintenance, lost his son, two daughters-in-law, and an employee in the disaster. Overcome by emotion, he refused a request for an interview from the Toronto Globe and Mail. He did tell a local newspaper that the MM&A’s tracks through Lac-Mégantic were in such poor condition that “they should have been changed a century ago.”

“The tracks are not adequate and we know because we often repair tracks for them,” LaFontaine said. “A week ago they had a derailment,” an earlier derailment that spilled 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel. “Another time, a foot of track was missing…”

“Last fall the municipality and the county, MRC du Granit, issued a report on ‘serious erosion’ of a 30-metre segment of (MM&A) track on the western edge of town, just steps from a beach and campground,” the Toronto Globe and Mail reported on July 8. “A few months later the town again pressed MM&A for changes, this time to fix a part of the track on the eastern edge of town just past the site of last weekend’s derailment. … Last month 13,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled from rail cars in town.”

By now, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the runaway train was parked on a sidetrack outside of town and somehow began to move, accelerating for about seven miles until it reached Lac-Mégantic, traveling 63mph.

The train was parked at another small town, Nantes, on what is reported to be a 1.2% grade. This doesn’t sound like much, but a 1.2% grade descends 63 feet in a mile. Of course, the posted railroad grade is not entirely uniform, but the relative elevations of  Lac-Mégantic and Nantes are 407 meters and 515 meters, a difference of 354 feet. This is approximately the height of a 35-story building.

The train had five engines and 73 cars. A loaded tank car typically weighs around 130 tons. A locomotive weighs in the range of 120 tons, so the train’s total weight was about 10,000 tons. Imagine 10,000 tons sitting on top of a 35-story building and you get some idea of the forces involved, and the potential for acceleration over seven miles.

Once the speeding train entered Lac-Mégantic it approached a point where the track diverged into two segments. The movement into one or another of the tracks was governed by a hand-operated switch. Apparently, the five locomotives and a few cars got over the switch before the derailment was initiated. At that point the flange on one of the railcar wheels must have parted the closed “points” on the switch and forced itself between them.

In railroad parlance, this is called “picking the switch,” and is a frequent cause of derailment, especially on poorly maintained track. The result is that the wheel splitting the switch wants to follow one set of tracks and the wheel on the opposite side wants to follow the other track. The trailing cars follow this disarrangement in two directions and fall off the rails. The immense momentum of the train then drives the derailed cars into jack-knifed positions, piling them like sausages, as the photos show.

Extreme intensity of the fire

Looking at the photos of the huge fire the night of the derailment, you see flames shooting up an estimated 12 stories. The fire’s scope and temperature was enough to incinerate nearby buildings, as the photos show.

Crude oil is a mixture of a wide variety of constituents. It consists primarily of hydrocarbons, which are chemicals composed of hydrogen and carbon. Crude oil also contains hundreds of substances that include benzene, chromium, iron, mercury, nickel, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. Some of these are gases called “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs), including highly flammable hydrocarbon gases ranging from methane to heptane.

When crude oil is burned, it emits chemicals that affect human health. These chemicals include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.

Crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota, which was what the MM&A train was carrying, has been found to have a uniquely high content of these VOCs.

“Most crudes have very little of these hydrocarbons,” Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources was quoted as saying in 2009, when this unusual composition first came to the attention of environmental regulators in the state. The situation, Helms said, has serious environmental implications. The unexpected quantity of VOC’s present in Bakken oil “speaks to how unusual this is,” said Josh Rickard, EPA Region 8 enforcement team manager (Bismarck Tribune, Oct. 23, 2012).

Maine Emergency Management Agency coordinator Rob Gardner “said he was shocked by the reports that there were explosions involving trains carrying crude oil since that is not an explosive material” (Bangor Daily News, July 9, 2013). MM&A operates for about 200 miles through the state of Maine en route to Irving Oil Ltd’s refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, the largest refinery in Canada.

The astonishing intensity of the fire, which is visually evident in the photos in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, is not typical of burning crude oil, normally a heavy, sludge-like substance. The heat was so extreme that, for instance, aluminum siding on adjacent houses melted, and over 30 buildings were “incinerated,” meaning burned entirely.

This is another indication of the intensity of the fire—this was not a case of  a fire igniting a nearby building with the flames then leapfrogging from one to another. The source was radiant heat of such an intensity that the buildings, and the unfortunate human beings who were patronizing the Music-Cafe nearby, were reduced to undifferentiated carbon.

Unsafe tank cars

A major derailment and release of hazardous material on the Nemadji River in northern Wisconsin in 1992 involved a DOT111 tank car loaded with benzene, which plunged off a 135-foot high bridge, releasing a cloud of toxic vapor. Some 50,000 people had to be evacuated from the nearby twin ports of Duluth and Superior.

For a time, attention was focused on the deficiencies of the car’s construction. Fundamental to the flaws is the 1/4“ steel shell, which makes up the containment vessel on the car. Other problems include unloading valves that can release on impact. The AP analysis of 20 years’ worth of federal rail accident data found that DOT111 ethanol tankers alone have been breached in at least 40 serious accidents since 2000. In the previous decade, there were just two breaches.

Following the Nemadji disaster, Minnesota State Senator Willard Munger convened a legislative hearing to investigate the status of tank car safety, specifically centering on the DOT111. Larry Mann, a lawyer associated with rail labor, testified, with what in retrospect appears as chilling prescience, “The industry has known that this type of tank car is not a safe car. …Maybe next month or next year in the middle of a city, a tank car is going to explode, or a tank car is going to run off and break … and a tremendous community is going to get wiped out. It’s just a matter of time.”

Railroad representatives, as usual, stalled for time, promising that a remedial program addressing the DOT111‘s faults was under way. Fortunately, a video has been preserved incorporating the hearing as part of a 1994 McNeil-Lehrer News Hour (PBS) report on railroad safety. It can be accessed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgOZ2yWn1w8&feature=youtu.be.

Over 20 years later, “It has emerged,” the Toronto Globe and Mail reported on July 8, “that the tank cars involved in the (Lac-Mégantic)  disaster were an older type that regulators had criticized for year. The surviving cars that were pulled from the blast had stencilled marking indicating they were the type that have been described as prone to puncturing because of their thin metal shells.”

The tank cars on the train were DOT111s. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 69% of tank cars in operation today are DOT111s. The Associated Press reported last September: “For two decades, one of the most commonly used types of rail tanker (the DOT111) has been allowed to haul hazardous liquids from coast to coast even though transportation officials were aware of a dangerous design flaw that almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.”

Since the hearing 20 years ago, there has been an enormous increase in flammable hazardous material being transported in DO111 tank cars. At least 40,000 DOT111s are used presently to ship ethanol. In only the last few years, the shipment of crude oil by rail has increased exponentially, mainly from the Bakken fields, where oil is obtained by the fracking process. North Dakota is now the second state in the country in the production of crude oil, only exceeded by Texas. In Canada, oil shipments by have increased by 28,000% (this is not a misprint) since 2009, according to the Canadian Railway Association.

While the increase has not been so huge in the U.S., it is still enormous. Since 2010, crude oil carloads on the BNSF Railway (which operates in Texas as well as North Dakota) have gone up from 21,000 to 154,000 in 2012. The Canadian Pacific Railroad, which operates in North Dakota through its U.S. subsidiary, went from 2800 carloads to 53,500 in 2012 (source: Association of American Railroads).

Moving the crude is not exactly seamless, however. As a case in point: Just over a year ago, Irving Oil contracted with the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad to carry Bakken crude to its refinery in Saint John. The media has consistently reported that the MM&A was hauling crude oil from North Dakota to St. John. This is a major misrepresentation. MM&A is a Class III “shortline” railroad operating from Montreal to St. John over a former Canadian Pacific subsidiary. The MM&A received the 72 cars of crude oil from the CPR in their yard at Farnham, QE, just east of Montreal, and replaced the CPR’s locomotive consist with their own elderly engines, mostly acquired from other railroads.

Steel rail changes metallurgically over time, becoming brittle, inviting fracturing and breakage as the wheels passing over hammer the rail. These impacts obviously increased exponentially with the huge expansion of crude oil shipments over the MM&A. The pounding is accentuated on poorly maintained track, which flexes up and down, lacking adequate support from ties and other substructures.

The rail at Lac-Mégantic, from all reports, was in atrocious condition, installed decades ago and minimally maintained by the CPR, and then, since 2003 by the MM&A. It appears that the MM&A did not have any regularly employed track workers, calling Roy LaFontaine’s contracting company when dangerous defects were reported.

Montreal Gazette photographer Justin Tang retraced the last two kilometres of the train’s journey before it derailed. The photographs (Ottawa Citizen, July 17, 2013) show that many of the underlying wooden ties have split and rotted away. Many metal spikes are either missing or loose. “The weakest spots are the ties,” said retired CN transportation engineer Paul-André Larose, who also has a PhD in physics. “They appear to be all coming to the end of their useful life.”

Ed Burkhardt

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of the board of MM&A Rail, is, according to the Montreal Gazette (July 10, 2013), “no stranger to derailments.”

“The safety record and cost-cutting practices of companies run by Burkhardt—hailed as “railroader of the year” in 1999 by an industry trade journal—“are coming under heightened scrutiny as transportation and police investigators comb through the wreckage of the July 6 train derailment, now believed to be Canada’s worst rail accident. It is expected to have killed 50 people and obliterated 40 buildings.”

“Burkhardt has a history of cutting, cutting, cutting,” said Craig Peachy, state director of Wisconsin Legislative Board of the United Transportation Union (UTU). “This is no surprise.”

Nonetheless, Burkhardt disingenuously told The Wall Street Journal (July 9, 2013), “Up until Saturday, we never had a main-line derailment on our own railroad of any significance.” Apparently, he was limiting “our own” to the MM&A, not any of the other railroads he has been boss of since leaving an executive position on the Chicago & North Western Railroad in 1987.

“The vast majority of shortlines in America intentionally push the margins of safety within regulatory compliance to the limit. The shortline’s definition of ‘best practices’ approach is productivity first and deal with any consequences later,” said Phil Qualy, Peachey’s counterpart as UTU legislative director in Minnesota. “Unfortunately in the aftermath of Ed Burkhart’s method of railroading, the only way to assure railroad safety and public security is for the plaintiffs of Lac Mégantic to sue the Montreal, Main and Atlantic, and Burkhart’s syndicate of shortlines out of the railroad business permanently.

Further, Burkhart and his board of directors should be sued personally. If litigation discloses that the American Shortline and Regional Railroad Association had any part in advocating for Burkhart’s method of railroading, they should be held to account as well. Sounds like scorched earth? What is left of that
little town in Quebec? How many more evacuations do we need?”

“Among railroad veterans, Mr. Burkhardt has a reputation as a hands-on manager who got involved in all parts of the business,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “He’s considered a living legend among railroaders,” the Toronto Globe and Mail gushed, in a July 10 profile. “He had dirt under his fingernails,” said Chip Paquelet, who met with Mr. Burkhardt frequently in the 1990s as one of Wisconsin Central’s largest investors.

Notwithstanding this ludicrous attempt to fabricate blue-collar credentials for him, Burkhardt is the son of a wealthy doctor. He was born in New York City and graduated from Yale University, majoring in railroad management, moving quickly into a senior executive position in the Chicago and North Western Railway. As an operations manager, his specialty was deferring maintenance on equipment and track structures and seeking abandonment of branch lines to maximize profits in an era of declining railroad traffic.

The 1980 Staggers Rail Act, supplemented by an ex parte interpretation by the Interstate Commerce Commission, gave the railroads virtual carte blanche to abandon track and to abrogate union agreements by “selling” other segments of their systems to so-called “non-railroad entities,” under the premise that this would preserve public service on secondary lines that the major railroads were not willing to continue to operate. In testimony before the two House of Representatives subcommittees on June 9, 1994, Walter Shea, President of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department made clear what this was really all about:

“In what it termed the ‘spirit of deregulation,’” Shea said, “the ICC began in the early 1980s to exempt certain rail transactions from regulation. It also used a provision of the Interstate Commerce Act (Section 10901) that was intended to apply only to existing rail carriers, to permit paper corporations created by, or subsidized by, existing railroads to rid themselves of portions of their railroads that they could not abandon.”

“Railroads quickly spotted this new loophole,” Shea said, “and drove through it. Ever since, they have been using the ICC’s tortured misuse of this provision as an opportunity to effectively void union contracts, wipe out thousands of jobs, evade statutory obligations to employees, and cut wages and benefits by spinning off, not only short lines, but entire regional rail systems. Most of these spun-off lines were held totally captive to the seller.

“By creating subsidiaries disguised as “non-railroad entities” to buy rail lines, railroads have been allowed to transfer work from existing, unionized carriers to newly minted, non-union short lines, with the blessing of the ICC.”

Initially, this process was limited to so-called “short lines,” generally rail segments of 100 miles or less. But by the mid-1980s it had moved on to “regional railroads” of substantially greater scope. In 1986 the “Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railway,” a paper corporation, was created under the tutelage of Ed Burkhardt out of over 1000 miles of C&NW trackage from Winona, Minn., to Rapid City, S.D., and began operating on a non-union basis—the collective bargaining agreement extinguished overnight.

Wages were determined unilaterally by the “new” employer and all seniority rights for the former C&NW employees were lost, including accrued vacation benefits. The C&NW retained ownership and continued to pay taxes on the land underlying the railroad, as well as the rolling stock and other equipment.

In 1987 Ed Burkhardt left the C&NW to become the boss of the newly created Wisconsin Central Railroad, a spin-off of a segment of the Canadian Pacific-owned Soo Line, which encompassed more than 2000 miles of trackage. All Soo Line employees on this system immediately lost their collective bargaining rights. The only right they retained was the right to apply for their old jobs at reduced wages.

Burkhardt moved quickly to introduce engineer-only train operations, but was forced to retreat because of a counter-offensive by rail unions and concerned public officials. On March 4, 1996, a WC train derailed at Weyawega, Wis., releasing and igniting hazardous materials including propane gas from ruptured tank cars. Thousands of residents, including the entire town of Weyawega, were evacuated for over two weeks. The cause, the NTSB reported, was improper maintenance “because Wisconsin Central management did not ensure that the two employees responsible for inspecting the track structure were properly trained.”

Burkhardt was recruited by the World Bank to be its primary operative in following the trail of Anglo-Canadian capital and executing the privatization of nationalized railroads in New Zealand, Australia, and then Great Britain. Burkhardt then was anointed the head of privatized railroads in Estonia and Poland (now headed by a former British diplomat) as well as Honorary Consul for New Zealand at Chicago. “Executives from state-owned railways in Sweden, Russia, Egypt, Austria and China” have made pilgrimages to Burkhardt’s office, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported in 1996. The World Bank keeps sending them,” Burkhardt said.

The frame-up of engineer Harding

Burkhardt exhibits an unattractive propensity to blame the trail of railroad disasters he has left in his wake on anybody but himself and the cost-cutting management practices he exemplifies.

“Mr. Burkhardt’s first comments on the accident pointed the finger at those he thought might be responsible,” writes John Baldoni in the financial journal Forbes (July 15, 2013). “As reported in The New York Times, Burkhardt blamed “’tampering’ with the train’s locomotives,” then he shifted focus to the volunteer firefighters who helped extinguish the massive blaze. Later at a press conference in Lac-Mégantic, where local residents booed him, Burkhardt fingered a railroad engineer whom he asserted had not set the brakes properly. At his press conference Burkhardt also chided the press for their poor “manners,” and as the press conference ended—in response to reporter’s questions—he made light of the fact that his net worth had taken a hit after the accident.”

“Burkhardt, who has spent his life in the railroad industry, has proven one thing—that he is clueless as well as careless, not to mention disrespectful, in handling a crisis of this magnitude. While Burkhardt did express an “abject apology,” such words were drowned out by his other comments as well as the fact that he stayed away from the accident scene for days. Such behavior shows callous disregard for the citizens whose town and livelihoods were destroyed in an oil-tanker fuel firestorm.”

Understandably, the local fire chief was incensed at the accusation. Referring to Burkhardt, Patrick Lambert said, “He can come down here and we’ll discuss the difference between chairs and Eskimos. I don’t think he knows the difference.”

Burkhardt’s latest decision, to try to pin the blame on veteran engineer Tom Harding, is reprehensible, but entirely in character. “The accident at Lac Megantic,” Baldoni concludes, “shows that when crisis strikes, brave people come to assist, as the fire fighters did. Less brave folks like Burkhardt prefer to throw stones from the sidelines and pretend they are blameless.”

Engineer Harding has operated probably scores of crude oil trains to the siding at Nantes, where the train is left for a U.S. crew to take over and run it through the state of Maine. It is simply not credible that this veteran railroad worker, whose father preceded him as a conductor on this same piece of railroad, would neglect his responsibility to secure the train. He was well aware that the train was stopped on a steep grade, with the ever-present potential of it moving under the constant force of gravity.

Harding reported that he had applied 11 hand brakes. Rule 112 of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules (CROR) provides, “When equipment is left at any point a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving. Special instructions will indicate the minimum hand brake requirements for all locations where equipment is left.”

As far as is known, the MM&A has issued no “special instructions” for hand brakes at Nantes. Harding left one locomotive running, standard practice to keep the air brakes applied. Unfortunately, the locomotive caught fire after he left, the result of a leak somewhere in the fuel line, which ignited on contact with a hot exhaust manifold or some similar part of the diesel engine.

When the local fire department responded, they of course either shut down the engine or arranged with one of the two MM&A employees on the scene to do so. This stopped the flow fuel oil, but also of compressed air through the train, and leakage released the air brakes. The retarding effect of the hand brakes was eventually overcome by gravity and the train began its journey to Lac-Mégantic. The leak in the fuel line, and the rapid bleed-off of the air brakes, are evidence of seriously neglected mechanical maintenance, the outstanding characteristic of Burkhardt-managed railroads.

The real tragedy here, not to say criminal negligence, was that a simple device called a derail (pronounced DEE rail) could have stopped the train even in the event of brake failure.

A derail is just a mechanically elementary device of about a square foot made of cast steel, which in “on” position,” directs the leading wheel of a car or engine off the rail onto the ground. Dropping the wheel or wheels onto the ground, unsupported by the track structure, stops the movement because gravity cannot overcome the retardation of contact with the ground. Typically, a derailed piece of rail equipment will stop in half a car length or less. Whey weren’t there derails installed at both ends of the Nantes siding, creating a fail-safe insurance against unintended movement into the main line and beyond? The Class I railroad that I worked on had derails on every siding.

Another runaway train in Quebec

A startlingly similar occurrence to the Lac-Mégantic/Nantes runaway train is highlighted in a report by the Canadian Transport Safety Board (TSB) on another runaway in Quebec on Dec. 11, 2011 (Railway Investigation Report R11Q0056). The train weighed about the same as the MM&A train, 10,000 tons, and ran down a similar grade (1.34%) when its brakes failed to apply.  However, in this instance there were no adverse consequences—the train simply ran 15 miles along its main track and finally came to a stop.

Earlier, while the train was stationary on the descending grade, the engineer (again an engineer-only train) applied 35 hand-brakes. Nonetheless, the train, after an hour had passed, overcame the retarding effect of the hand-brakes and moved, reaching 63 mph, exactly the same as the Lac-Mégantic train.

The TSB’s analysis found that the hand-brake mechanisms “lacked lubrication and the components were improperly adjusted.” They took no exception to the engineer’s report that he had applied 35 hand brakes, finding that “determining what constitutes a sufficient number of hand-brakes requires more information than locomotive engineers may have available to them.”

“Even when locomotive engineers apply sufficient torque (to the hand-brake wheel), the forces applied by the brake shoes could prove insufficient when hand brake mechanisms are not lubricated and are improperly adjusted,” the TSB found.

In my opinion, based on the evidence and on having worked for 31 years in the railroad industry, this is what happened at Nantes/Lac-Mégantic. It is evident that a succession of acts of continuing negligence on the part of the MM&A finally combined to create a horrific disaster on July 6. But to call it “negligence” really understates the matter. All the “negligence” referenced in this article, and more, is intentional, and due to conscious pursuit of maximizing profits. And the attempt by Ed Burkhardt to scapegoat Engineer Harding grossly compounds the crime. If the ultimate responsibility, culpability, guilt is to be assigned to a single individual, there is no doubt who that is.

“Rail World Inc. (and MM&A) Chief Executive Officer Edward Burkhardt has gone from railroad industry legend to Canada’s public enemy No. 1 in less than a week,” writes Tim Catts for Bloomberg News (July 12, 2013). Guy Farrell, assistant to the Quebec director of the United Steelworkers Union, which represents 75 MM&A workers, speaking in an interview about Burkhardt, said “I have no respect for a person like this who cannot take his responsibilities and tries to find a scapegoat.”

But in the last analysis, everything Burkhardt did, or didn’t do, was consistent with his role as an agent of global capital, in this case the World Bank, as he said. His mission was to maximize profits, and he did. Who was there to stop him? Nobody.

These masters of the universe exert decisive control over regulatory agencies, news media, and governments. What happened when the DOT111 tank cars were identified 20 years ago as a clear and present danger? Nothing. Then, after two decades of repeated breaches, they blew up in Lac-Mégantic in a mega-catastrophe, just as labor lawyer Larry Mann predicted in 1994. Now what will happen?

The only way these transportation systems can be operated safely is as public utilities, whose mandate is safe, reliable, and socially useful service, ultimately answering to the people and not the banks. Whether that can happen can only be determined in struggle

If the labor movement, which formally encompasses both Canada and the United States, entered into this struggle in a unified manner, and carried out a broad educational campaign, it could have a real impact, and put the discussion on the national agenda.

Just after World War I, the railroad brotherhoods organized the “Plumb Plan League” to support a proposal for nationalization of the railroads put forward by their general counsel, Glenn E. Plumb. Although it was never adopted by Congress, unfortunately, it strengthened the standing of the brotherhoods before the public as advocates of a measure to benefit society as a whole, and undoubtedly put them in a better position to defend their own interests in the early 20th century.

To leave the railroads in the hands of the money kings can only guarantee future disasters.

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