Lac Megantic

On July 6, 2013, an unattended freight train carrying crude oil rolled into the downtown of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Several cars exploded or caught fire, killing 47 people. The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, by Bruce Campbell, chronicles the events leading up to and following the explosion. Campbell argues that the Lac-Mégantic disaster was not a fluke, but the result of decades of public policy failure on the part of the Canadian government and corporate negligence by oil and rail companies. This excerpt from Campbell’s new book chronicles the hours leading up to the explosion as well as the regulatory gaps that made it possible.

A railroader from a family of railroaders, Tom Harding, Jr., joined CP in 1980 at the age of 18. After CP sold the Mégantic line in 1995, he stayed on with a succession of owners, the last of them arriving in 2003, when Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was formed.

Harding, who turned 53 in 2013, grew up and still resides in Farnham, a railway town south of Montreal at the entrance to the Eastern Townships. A passionate hockey player in his youth, Harding eventually gave up hockey for the less demanding sport of snowboarding. He was immensely proud of his son, who had just graduated from Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Que. Lately, much of the elder Harding’s days were taken up caring for his ailing mother.

For more than two years, he had been driving the Lac-Mégantic route, a shift that deposited him in the town overnight. Harding usually stayed at an inn called l’Eau Berge, along with the American crew who would take the train across the border the next morning.

Lac-Mégantic had become his second home. Staff and bar regulars at the inn described him as kind and friendly, game to chat in accented French. Gilles Fluet, who talked regularly with Harding, said he never stayed for more than a beer after his shift. Harding and the other Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway drivers would often complain about the poor condition of the company’s locomotives.

Harding was respected by fellow workers. He was an exception to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s culture of negligence, according to his former colleague, Kevin Mosher. “He was knowledgeable about the rules and always applied them. He was one the few employees at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway who always diligently applied himself to his work,” says Mosher. Another former colleague, conductor Jonathan Couture, described Harding as patient and safety-conscious.

Couture recalled an incident when he and Harding, as a crew, were bound for Lac-Mégantic. They were leaving the Sherbrooke yard when Couture realized he was not sure he had applied the handbrakes on the cars they had left in the yard. “I decided to speak to Tom about it before we were too far,” Couture said, “His reaction was to stop the train and ask me to go back. Tom told me that my conscience should dictate my moves.”

Clear Warnings

In July 2012, Irving Oil started doing a few test runs with Bakken oil. The same month, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway began operating its trains with a single operator, without providing advance notice to Transport Canada as it had promised. (Other than a few test runs, Irving Oil didn’t start hauling Bakken crude via Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway until November 2012.)

In starting up the new system, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway did not abide by its intention, as stated to Transport Canada, to decrease train length from one hundred cars to fifty for single-person trains, or to improve track conditions to enhance safety and allow engineers to reach their destination sooner, thereby reducing the risk of fatigue.

Although Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s safety managementsystems plan called for four hours of training for locomotive engineers to adjust to not having a second crew member, training consisted of a twenty-minute briefing in the manager’s office. Harding’s training was delivered within the hour preceding his first departure. In contrast, Quebec North Shore and Labrador had a thousand-hour training program for its lone engineers driving its decidedly lower-risk iron ore trains in lower-risk northern Quebec.

Contrary to its safety management systems documents, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway undertook no job-task analysis for a single-person crew, nor any analysis of potential hazards associated with those tasks. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway did not do a risk assessment of the safety implications of leaving parked trains unattended on the steeply sloped main track at Nantes. The railway did not consider Nantes a high-risk location in its safety management system.

But for that matter, senior Transport Canada officials also thought a new risk assessment was unnecessary. Meanwhile the department’s Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate was not verifying the accuracy of the Bakken train’s volatility classification documents, either through testing en route or at the Irving refinery.

Transport Canada had 102 rail safety personnel, 15 in Quebec. It had thirty-five dangerous goods inspectors in 2013, only sixteen of whom were qualified for rail, and none were specifically assigned to Quebec. These numbers had not changed since at least 2004. In 2009, there was the equivalent of fourteen carloads of crude oil per dangerous goods inspector. By 2013, that ratio had increased to about 4,500 carloads per inspector.

Transport Canada’s Quebec regional office had only two operations inspectors to do on-site inspections for the entire provincial network. A former insider told me: “If we don’t get specific complaints, we cannot take action. We were not aware Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was leaving trains on the main track at Nantes. To our knowledge, they were on the siding protected by an exemption derail” (a device that can be set to stop a train from moving).

The Quebec office conducted a limited safety management system audit of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in October 2012, which discovered a number of deficiencies, as well as the company’s failure to report four accidents. The Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Lac-Mégantic disaster revealed that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had not reported twenty-two accidents from 2007 to 2013. While the railway did submit a corrective action plan to Transport Canada, most of its safety management system deficiencies were never resolved.

In November 2012, Irving began receiving large quantities of Bakken oil using the CP-Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway route. Between November and July 6, 2013, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway hauled sixty-seven trains with a total of 3,830 tank cars laden with Bakken crude. The lone crew member parked these trains on the main track, unattended, at Nantes, on top of a hill that sloped down steeply toward the heart of Lac-Mégantic, 11 kilometres away.

It had now become a deadly game of Russian roulette: not if, but when.

The same month oil trains began rolling, Lac-Mégantic town council sent a letter to Transport Minister Denis Lebel and the local Conservative member of Parliament, Christian Paradis, warning them about the poor condition of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s track, in particular an unstable section of track embankment at the north end of town that tended to be eroded by heavy rain. The letter read, in part: “A train derailment containing toxic products or contaminants at this location is likely to cause considerable damage, considering the proximity to residences.”

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had tried to fix the problem over several years but it kept recurring. After being contacted by Transport Canada, it went through this procedure once again. A Transport Canada inspector verified that the work had been done.

In early 2013, inspectors from Transport Canada’s Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate found improperly classified oil on a CP train. However, when they alerted the company, the train had already departed eastward. There was no follow-up by officials.

Excerpted from Chapter 7 of The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Deniedby Bruce Campbell. Published by Lorimer, October 2018.

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