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Lac-Mégantic Trial Reveals More Damning Evidence

By Jordan Barab - Confined Space, October 24, 2017

The trial of three rail employees blamed for the deaths of 47 people due to a train carrying 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil that derailed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic continues to move forward.

At around 1:00 am on July 6, 2013, the un-manned train began to roll down a hill toward the town after the lead locomotive was shut down due to a fire caused by mechanical problems. The government is arguing that Thomas Harding (the engineer and sole crew member) didn’t set enough hand brakes on the train. Two other MMA employees, Richard Labrie, 59, and Jean Demaitre, 53, are also being tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

I have written about this tragedy here about how the workers are being blamed for what is clearly a failure of management to establish and enforce safe procedures and a safety culture at the railroad. MMA has since gone bankrupt.  My first trial update can be read here.

In the latest installment,  former MMA locomotive engineer, François Daigle, told the court that MMA had allowed to train to exceed a safe weight by almost 50% more than allowed:

Referring to a regulation manual and documents which listed the contents and weight of the 73-car train that derailed on July 6, 2013, Daigle confirmed the maximum weight allowed for an MMA train during the period from April 1, 2013 to Nov. 30 was 6300 tonnes — not counting locomotives.

The train involved in the tragedy weighed 9100 tonnes.

Daigle also confirmed that MMA did not maintain the trains adequately and they were discouraged from complaining about the poor conditions of the locomotives. The lead locomotive on the train that crashed into Lac Megantic was parked on a hill above the town due to mechanical problems. It later caught fire, causing the fire department to shut down the lead locomotive, which lead to the brake failure.

Another former MMA employee, Michael Horan, who was in charge of training and safety in Quebec, told the court that when MMA decided to allow trains to operate with one-man crews, they implemented no new safety precautions. For example, there was no new requirement that the locomotive engineer communicate to headquarters the number of hand brakes that had been applied. Horan also told the court that another railroad, Quebec North Shore and Labrador Rail (QNSL), that had instituted single crew trains did so under much stricter conditions.

Horan said that MMA did make the effort to meet municipal and emergency response officials along the route to talk about foreseeable problems and to make sure that there were procedures in place in the event of an unforeseen incident, such as a derailment. But the chance of a fire was never discussed, despite the fact that the trains were carrying crude oil.

Horan also told the court that Harding should have set 9 hand brakes, not seven, according to MMA procedures. The problem, as we reported before, is that Canadian Transportation Board report said that “testing showed that this number would not have provided sufficient retarding force to hold the train once the air pressure in the independent brake system was reduced” after the lead engine was shut down after the fire. In fact, the TSB concluded that, depending on various scenarios, the engineer would have needed to apply between 12 and 26 hand brakes in order to hold the train.

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