Lac-Mégantic: a train disaster that needn’t have happened

I was successful in overcoming the urge to write a post after Andy Scott’s funeral a few weeks ago.  I reminded myself of my self-imposed hiatus.  I was successful then, but now there’s a new topic that I simply cannot avoid writing about and this topic would benefit from some lessons learned from Andy, so let’s start with him.  Andy Scott, our very popular former MP, sadly died of cancer at the age of 58, leaving a grieving family, a grieving community, and grieving colleagues from across Canada.  What was special about Andy was that he included everyone in dialogue – and Andy was defined by dialogue.  He held regular town halls for the entire community; not Party meetings for partisan posturing, but open gatherings to discuss topics likely to be debated in Parliament (remember when Parliament used to debate topics).  He would invite non-partisan experts on a topic to help explain the background and various sides of an issue; he’d discuss possible outcomes depending on how legislation might go, and then open it up for questions and comments.  All opinions welcome.  He came home from Ottawa every weekend – even when he had to drive through the night because for a time Air Canada had a very poor connection between Ottawa and Fredericton – to be with his family and, importantly, to spend Saturday morning at the market, catching up with all his constituents and listening to their concerns.

At his funeral, Canada’s former prime minister, Paul Martin, spoke with humour and respect for the qualities Andy brought to politics, as did one of our province’s former premiers, Frank McKenna, and our current premier, David Alward.  I listened to the assembled politicians and assorted movers and shakers chatting together about this tragic loss, reminiscing about the special qualities Andy demonstrated: civility, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, and openness.  And I thought, “Why is it that we can recognize these qualities and admire them, but apparently not follow suit?  Why is it that more of these people holding political or economic power can’t walk the talk?”

That is the question I refrained from exploring in writing a few weeks ago.  Now, with the unmitigated disaster of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment, I find myself asking the same questions and I can no longer overcome the need to write.  Unlike the very recent flood disaster in Calgary, which could at least be “blamed” on nature, this tragedy was entirely preventable.  I don’t know about other news sources, but the BBC coverage reports it as a completely Canadian rail disaster.  It isn’t.  The train of 73 cars, single-hull tanker cars that were designed for liquids like vegetable oil but grandfathered to allow crude oil, was hauling its load from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.  The rail company that owns the train is headquartered in Chicago, and it’s hauling plenty of oil.  LOTS of oil is being carried hither and yon across North America by train these days.  In fact, oil transport by train has increased by well over 2000% in the last few years.  On train lines that go through small town centers.  On train lines that were not laid with any expectation that long trains carrying oil would be using them decades later.  In trains that are managed by people trying to eke out every penny they can, at whatever risk, because their shareholders demand performance.  Because the regulations don’t specifically say you cannot run a 73-car train with just one operator.  Because the regulations don’t specifically say that you cannot leave a 73-car train filled with oil unattended – on the main line – on a hill above a town.  Not my fault.  Never happened before.  We have an excellent safety record.  Until now.

Watching the CEO of the rail company on his televised press conference, when he showed up in town 5 days after the “incident”, as he called it, I had difficulty wrapping my head around his worldview.  Insincere platitudes would have been preferable to his blunt though presumably honest statements.  I recognize that some people are better at expressing themselves sympathetically than others, but one would think that a 74-year old railroad tycoon would have had some media lessons.  If so, he didn’t get his money’s worth.  From Chicago he had already blamed – yes, blamed – the disaster on, first, vandals and then on local firefighters who had been called to put out a small fire in one of its locomotives after it had been left for the night.  No hint of an apology from Chicago.  And when Mr. Burkhardt made his long awaited appearance, he blamed the run-away train on his operator employee, without knowing full details.  Without being asked, he just went ahead and apportioned blame.

This is a town of 6000 people who have lost 60 people in a horrendous explosion and fire.  That’s 1% of their population.  It destroyed their downtown core.  Gone.  Library – gone.  Historic archives – gone.  This is not an “incident”.  Police are collecting ashes from a destroyed nightspot to send to a Montreal DNA lab; families of the missing are being asked to send toothbrushes or hair brushes that might contain DNA samples to help with identification.  The interesting thing is that if CEO Burkhardt could have even pretended to relate to the scope of this human tragedy, people would have felt better.  Instead, reporters and townsfolk listened to statements such as, “I feel personally rotten about it, but what can you do at this point?” and “People say, ‘You’re trying to duck out of this.’ I say, ‘No, I’m trying to be smart about how we allocate our resources.’”  He made it clear that as soon as things are “cleaned up” the trains will start rolling again.  And, no, they couldn’t reroute the tracks around the town center; that would cost too much.  And he said all this in a pleasant flat mid-western accent, like a nice grandfather.  Truly unnerving.

These last remarks reminded me of a recent response by the illustrious – or infamous depending on your point of view – Hunter Harrison, the now-head of Canadian Pacific Rail.  Some of you may remember Bill Ackman, the American hedge fund manager, buying sufficient shares of CP to overthrow the sitting President and their Board and bring in American railroad tycoon Harrison to shake things up and make (even) more money.  Harrison had headed Canadian National and was retired with a mega-pension, but he couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle.  During the calamitous Calgary flood a few weeks ago, CP sent a train of petroleum products through Calgary, across a bridge over the badly flooded Bow River.  Not surprisingly, one of the bridge piers gave way and 6 cars were left dangling over the river.  After all, it was a 500-year flood, with raging, roiling high water.  It was the City of Calgary crews who risked their lived to secure those cars, just as it is local firefighters and police who are handling the Lac-Mégantic clean-up and investigation.  As the impressive mayor of Calgary observed, “While thousands of southern Albertans wait to return to their homes, businesses and workplaces until it is safe to do so, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway, couldn’t wait any longer to send a loaded train over what turned out to be a flood-damaged bridge, saying ‘And how long was that going to be? We’re jeopardizing commerce.’”

We need oil, we need to have it transported, and we need to have a well-managed economy.  But too often it seems as though decisions on how to accomplish these goals are being made by individuals who have taken people – and often fact-based decision-making and common sense – out of the equation.  The equation may need to include the people who work for you, who deserve not to be thrown to the wolves before all the facts are in.  Or it may need to include the people who buy your products and services or whose land – or whose lives – you may impact.  Without taking these people into account, the decisions being made are deficient and sometimes immoral.  We have many political and business leaders who understand this, but some days it seems like not enough of them fall in this camp.

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10 Responses to Lac-Mégantic: a train disaster that needn’t have happened

  1. A very well-written, thoughtful and respectful overview of the story. You are a convincing writer and I find myself in complete agreement with you. Yes, it was striking to listen to the company official making public statements. Never mind the actual words. Here was the message: “I feel badly being here and wish I were somewhere else. This is not my company’s fault because (a) we are remorseful—can’t you tell and (b) it’s one person’s fault and we put him on leave. Can I go now?”

    I am reminded of the Ocean Ranger disaster that took 84 souls off our coast back in 1982. The company’s initial stance was that it was the fault of the workers on the rig who were clearly incompetent—so they said. In the end, though, we all came to see a company, indeed an industry, that was focused solely on profit. Safety was not even on the radar! Management did not care about the safety of the workers, considering it each person’s sole responsibility. What’s more the management personnel stupidly and callously considered the rig essentially to safe to fail. They were wrong. Tragically wrong.

    To me, the same thing is happening here. It appeared that management did not see safety as its responsibility either. “The engineer should have set the brakes. They were not set properly so that was it.” The company was blameless.

    Well…NO. Management is there for much more than just making sales and cutting cheques. Instilling and nurturing an overall culture of safety within the company is its responsibility too. That’s not just opinion—it’s the law, thankfully. Where were the backups; the spot checks; the safety audits and, most importantly, why was there not enough safety protocols in place to prevent this? It’s not like railways are new or anything.

    If any good comes out of this terrible tragedy at all, perhaps it will be to refocus attention on the industry and, hopefully, renew the drive toward a culture of safety.

    In the meantime we all must grieve for those precious lives that have been lost.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for this important response, Maurice. The Ocean Ranger is another excellent example of big business, plus govt culpability by way of regulations (or loose enforcement of regulations) favouring cutting corners for the bottom line. Lisa Moore’s book February did a marevlous job of putting a human face to that particular tragedy. The Deepwater “oil spill” – talk about a euphemism – is another horrific example. I fervently hope that this tragedy does result in renewing a culture of safety, but if you ask any of the railroad union members I bet they won’t sound encouraged but instead beaten by the degradation in safety of the past many years. Grieve we must. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    Thanks for that eloquent blog Jane, and for bringing these matters to our attention. (Indeed I hadn’t even heard about the Alberta floods). Does it really surprise us any more though that the dollar talks loudest and that the ‘economic benefit’ argument trumps social and environmental considerations every time? A corporate fine, a few new regulations to ignore, and gaily on we go.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Roy. Thanks for your comment. Yes, the flooding in Alberta last month was staggering, as was some of the flooding in Europe. It’s going to be interesting to see if the powers that be have the political fortitude to tell people that they can’t rebuild in the flood plain. Re your observations about regulations and consequences, I wish I could disagree with you. As it was, this rail company had regulation exemptions for the type of rail cars used AND for having only one operator for the whole damn train.

  3. DM says:

    I am reading this @ 1:30 in the morning. Love hearing about Andy Scott! Reading this felt like reading a really good piece of investigative journalism. The second 1/2 of your post left me numb. I really don’t know what to say. I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the human loss. At. All.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi DM. Trying to stay positive about the direction the world is going in can be a challenge, can’t it?! I’m glad you agree that it’s worth reminding ourselves that there ARE good people trying to make a difference. Too bad it’s such a struggle so often.

  4. alesiablogs says:

    It is really nice to see you writing. This was a well written blog post about such terrible circumstances. I read briefly in the news about all of this and could not believe it. I watch very little news so all the extra information you share here makes this story even more horrific. I will be praying for those involved and hope for those left behind to find common sense solutions to such a sad disaster.

    • Emilia says:

      In the beginning of your blog you relate “political and economic power” . Well, I was thinking about it yesterday when it became known that, in fact, the regulations require 2 operators for this type of train but this company, the only one ever to do so, had requested the government permission to have only one and guess what…it was granted! My mind immediately switched to that relation between political and economic power as I thought “how influencial does a lobbying group has to be to get any politician to agree with this? After all, politicians are supposed to represent the people”. Whomever made that decision was certainly not a “Andy Scott”, or they would have consulted with the people and realize the mistake they were making! I feel sorry for the entire town but we cannot forget as well the train operator that was put in that position by the Burkhardt’s of the world!

      • Jane Fritz says:

        Hi Emilia. Exactly. One wonders why they bother with the regs if this is the outcome. And their CEO made it sound as though it wasn’t unusual, but that they’d lead by example by not doing this anymore. After having hung his own employee out to dry before any facts had emerged. I was pleased to see articles in defense of the operator yesterday, who is known and well liked in the town.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Alesia. Thanks for your comments. You may be onto something by staying away from the news; it’s rarely anything but disheartening, and that’s putting it mildly!

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