Robyn Benson, PSAC



Thirteen people confirmed dead. Forty people missing, some of whom might have been literally vapourized. Shops, a crowded drinking spot, the library, the local archives—the downtown core was ripped away, erased.

It’s obviously too soon to say precisely what caused the horrific rail tragedy still unfolding in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. A defective brake? Negligence? Poorly designed oil shipment cars? Lax safety inspections and Transport Canada oversight? A combination of these and other factors? We’ll be able to speak with more confidence after the inevitable inquiry.

But here is what we do know.

5% of all rail traffic in Canada is crude oil shipments. Approximately 20% of Canada’s oil is exported on rail.

Derailments may be falling in frequency, but there are still far too many of them—588 in 2011 alone. The train involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was owned by the Montreal Maine & Atlantic rail company. CN has had its share of problems as well, but is expected to double its crude oil traffic this year.

Since this past March, there have been six serious Canadian Pacific derailments:

March 27: About 114,000 litres of oil spilled near Parkers Prairie, Minn., when 14 cars derailed.

April 3: A derailment of 22 cars west of White River, Ont., caused the spill of 110,000 litres of light crude oil and 22,500 litres of canola oil. A broken train wheel and broken track were recovered from the scene.

April 28: Seventeen cars carrying potash derailed near Provost, Alta.

May 21: A freight train jumped the tracks near Jansen, Sask., and spilled 91,000 litres of oil.

June 2: A car derailed near Wanup, Ont., struck a rail trestle and collapsed bridge into a stream.

June 27: A bridge over Bow River in Calgary failed after a serious flood in the city leaving six cars teetering over the water.

Overall, rail shipments of crude oil have sharply increased. In the past eight months, shipments of Western crude have jumped 150% from the previous year, to 150,000 barrels per day.

The DOT-111 tanker cars most commonly used for transport are prone to leak their contents.

Railway companies themselves are responsible for carrying out safety inspections. But here, cutbacks may well be having their effects as the companies pursue the bottom line:

Tom Murphy, president of the CAW Local 101, which represents roughly 1,900 CP skilled trade workers, said he believes there is a direct correlation between the derailments and the reduction in CP’s headcount, including hundreds of his members who are tasked with conducting the safety inspections on the trains.

“The difference now is they have longer trains, less people to check them out, and a lot of the repairs, the supervisor says, ‘We don’t need to fix that now. Let it go,’” Mr. Murphy said in an interview Tuesday.

Meanwhile, rail officials are wringing their hands:

“That’s what confuses us. How did this happen?” said Joseph R. McGonigle, an executive at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. “There are many fail-safe modes. How this happened is just beyond us.”

Beyond everyone at this point, it seems. Not good enough. Not for the injured, not for the families of the dead and missing, and not for us.

[Photo: Yves Tremblay,]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 8, 2013 8:30 AM.

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