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Gov’t presses frame-up of rail workers in Canada

By John Steele - The Militant, December 11, 2017

SHERBROOKE, Quebec — Stephen Callaghan, a self-styled rail safety expert and the prosecution’s star witness, took the stand Nov. 21 in the Canadian government and rail bosses’ frame-up against locomotive engineer Tom Harding. Harding is charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death flowing from the July 2013 oil train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people and burned out Lac-Mégantic’s downtown core.

On trial with Harding, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1976, is train controller Richard Labrie, a fellow union member, as well as former low-level Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway operations manager Jean Demaitre. If declared guilty they could face life in prison.

Callaghan is a former inspector for the federal Transportation Safety Board. He also was a supervisor for the Quebec, North Shore and Labrador Railway, where he helped implement, for the first time in Canada, one-person “crew” operations. The only other railroad to get dispensation from the government to do so was Montreal, Maine and Atlantic.

Following the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Callaghan was hired by the Quebec provincial cops to investigate. The charges against Harding, Labrie and Demaitre were based on his report.

Accompanied by charts, graphs and photographs, Callaghan told the jury that the disaster was caused by Harding’s failure to activate a sufficient number of handbrakes before he left the train unattended.

Harding had driven the 72-car oil tanker train and parked on the main line in Nantes, as was the normal procedure on a grade above Lac-Mégantic. As he had done many times before, he set a number of hand brakes — he said he set seven that evening — and left the lead locomotive running with its independent air brakes on, confident the combination meant the train was well secured.

While Harding slept, a fire broke out in the stack of the lead engine. Volunteer firefighters turned off the locomotive to douse the flames. They left when a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic official on the scene told them that everything was in order. Harding, who was called about the fire, volunteered to come back and make sure everything was OK. He was told that was not necessary and he should go back to sleep. With the locomotive engine shut down, its air brakes bled out, and the train rolled down the hill into Lac-Mégantic, derailed and exploded.

Wakened by the explosion, Harding risked his life to help firefighters detach and move a number of tanker cars before they could explode. Many in Lac-Mégantic consider Harding a hero and are convinced that the top bosses of now defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic should have been charged — along with high officials of Ottawa’s agency Transport Canada, who had OK’d one-person operation and the erosion of safety on the rail line to boost company profits.

Evolution of the frame-up

Immediately after the disaster Montreal, Maine and Atlantic top boss Ed Burkhardt said Harding had done everything properly. Another company official called him a hero and described him as a “very conscientious person.” But a few days later the frame-up began, and Burkhardt accused Harding of not setting enough hand brakes.

In May 2014, guided by Callaghan’s investigative “report,” which left Burkhardt and the rest of the rail bosses free of blame, the Quebec police tactical squad, with guns drawn, descended on Harding’s home in Farnham, arrested him and paraded him in handcuffs into the court in Lac-Mégantic.

But the Transportation Safety Board’s own independent report concluded that no single person caused the tragedy and that some 18 different factors, including Montreal, Maine and Atlantic safety negligence, contributed to what happened. Rail bosses attacked the report — including then Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison, who insisted the Transportation Safety Board “overreacted” and that Harding alone was responsible.

Under cross-examination by Thomas Walsh, Harding’s lawyer, Callaghan was forced to admit that the use of air brakes to back up hand brakes is a normal and widespread practice by locomotive engineers.

When presiding Quebec Superior Court Judge Gaétan Dumas asked Callaghan if he knew what caused the fire in the lead locomotive, the “expert” said he didn’t know. But the Transportation Safety Board report said explicitly that the locomotive caught fire because of substandard rail company repairs.

A number of people from Lac-Mégantic have come to sit in on the trial, including leaders of the Citizens’ Coalition for Rail Safety. “The Transportation Safety Board report shows that Harding was not responsible for what happened,” Robert Bellefleur, the spokesperson for the coalition who was at Callaghan’s testimony, told the Militant. “There is still a lot of suffering in Lac-Mégantic, and those responsible are not in court.”

The Transportation Safety Board report is the elephant in the courtroom, because it cannot be referred to in front of the jury. In a pretrial hearing, Judge Dumas rejected without explanation a motion requesting the report be submitted as evidence for the defense, and denied the defense the right to subpoena safety board investigators.

The trial will continue into January 2018. “As the trial unfolds, we will bring more of the truth to light so the jury has a chance to assess the big picture,” Walsh told the Militant.

Messages in support of Harding and Labrie should be sent to USW Local 1976/Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC Canada H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9. Email:

Marie-Claire David and Michel Prairie contributed to this article.

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