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New stakes in the Lac-Mégantic frame up trial

By William C. Vantuonon - Railway Age, October 10, 2011 (reposted from The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy)

TransCanada Corp’s recent decision to abandon its $12 billion plan to build the Energy East pipeline, combined with delays to other export pipeline projects, may create a resurgence in crude by rail (CBR) from Canada, according to a report from Reuters.

“Calgary-based TransCanada said on [Oct. 5] it will abandon Energy East, which would have taken crude from Alberta to the Atlantic Coast,” the news agency reported. “The move came after Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) on Aug. 23 announced a tougher review process that would consider indirect greenhouse gas emissions.”

CBR is more expensive than pipeline for producers dealing with soft global oil prices. In the aftermath of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, and other CBR accidents that followed, the perception remains that CBR is less safe than pipeline. However, oil industry stakeholders say regulations for major energy projects in Canada “are now so stringent it is unlikely any company will try to build a new export pipeline,” Reuters noted. “A global oil market slump has also diminished appetite for building multibillion-dollar pipelines.”

As a result, Canada’s increasing crude oil production, expected to temporarily exceed pipeline capacity through 2019, “could face a longer-term lack of pipeline capacity and subsequent lower prices if crude becomes bottlenecked in Alberta,” Reuters said. “While pipeline congestion is bad news for producers, it will prove a boon for rail terminal operators who were badly burned when oil prices and CBR volumes crashed in 2014.”

Several crude oil producers and energy industry analysts Reuters contacted said that CBR traffic will increase:

  • TORQ Transloading expects to move up to 20,000 barrels per day (BPD) of CBR in 2018, a threefold increase over 2017. “We have seen a pickup in activity and heightened interest as we move into next year. Some people are signing contracts and there’s just more spot movement,” CEO Jarrett Zielinski said.
  • U.S. Development Partners LP and Gibson Energy, operators of a Hardisty, Alberta, terminal, have signed a three-year contract with a customer to ship 30,000 BPD of Canadian crude to Oklahoma, starting in October, using up idle loading capacity.
  • Analysts are expecting a surge in CBR exports later this year as two major oil sands projects in northern Alberta add 270,000 BPD to Canada’s current 3.85 million BPD of production. Three export pipeline projects currently under development—Kinder Morgan Canada’s Trans Mountain, Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 and TransCanada’s Keystone XL—have been delayed by continuing environmental opposition and legal challenges. Analysts at Tudor Pickering Holt estimate Canadian CBR volumes will rise from fewer than 200,000 BPD in early 2018 to a peak of around 550,000 BPD in 2019, when the Trans Mountain and Line 3 expansions are scheduled to begin operating. And even though CBR costs are up to two times that of pipeline, low global crude oil prices mean some producers will have little choice but to deal with higher costs if pipeline delays persist.

“If it looks like Trans Mountain could get delayed for years, people will start to reconsider their approach as the cost of rail in the current price environment means it is really hard for producers to make a return,” Morningstar analyst Sandy Fielden told Reuters, adding that some producers may shut down production.

Accountability Foreclosed, Justice Denied

By Bruce Campbell - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, October 9, 2017

The trial of the three front-line workers charged with criminal negligence causing death in the Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster, has now begun in a Sherbrooke, Québec courtroom. If found guilty, they could face life in prison. The defunct company, MMA, faces the same charges but its trial will be held at a later date. What are the consequences of an extinct corporate shell being found guilty, but minus charges against its executives and owner: none.

Many people in Lac-Mégantic believe that the right people are not on trial. I agree with them. The crown’s case will exclusively target the men closest to the disaster: those at the bottom of the pyramid of accountability. But individuals at higher levels of the pyramid have escaped accountability. They have not been blamed for their role in the disaster. Who are they?

Senior executives and directors of the delinquent company MMA, especially the owner Ed Burkhardt; no significant decisions were made without his permission: not held to account.

Transport Canada senior officials and the Minister, who allowed this delinquent company to continue operating without any sanctions; allowed it to cut corners and play Russian roulette with public safety; whose highly defective oversight system failed catastrophically: not held to account.

Conservative government leaders who exhibited complacency and casual indifference to the dangers of the mammoth surge in the transportation of volatile oil by rail: not held to account.

Industry lobbyists who pressured senior officials and politicians not to implement additional regulations to deal with this new and dangerous phenomenon: not held to account.

The senior Transport Canada official(s) who made the decision [with the tacit support of superiors]—over major opposition within Transport Canada itself and the unions—to allow MMA to operate its 12,000-ton high hazard oil trains through cities and towns piloted by a single person crew: not held to account.

The industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada [RAC], which led the controversial redrafting of the Canadian rail operating rules, with Transport Canada’s complicity, creating a loophole that allowed companies to operate single person crew trains with virtually no conditions to ensure an equivalent level of safety; and which then lobbied aggressively on behalf of this blatantly negligent company to be the first in Canada to run massive oil trains with a single person crew: not held to account.

Conservative government leaders who were responsible for a dysfunctional culture within Transport Canada, and in the name of austerity starved its resources—including reducing the rail safety directorate’s budget by 20% during the years when oil by rail was increasing exponentially— impeding its capacity to cope with this emergent reality: not held to account.

A regulation-averse prime minister responsible for instituting a notorious one-for-one rule policy requiring agencies which proposed a new regulation, to eliminate at least one existing regulation regardless of its impact on safety, on the pretext that cutting “red tape” would unleash market forces of job creation and economic growth; a policy which likely stonewalled the implementation of regulations that might have mitigated the risks of this new threat: not held to account.

Deregulation by both Conservative and Liberal governments, which systematically weakened or eliminated regulations, replacing them with voluntary codes and industry self-regulation [euphemistically called co-regulation] with limited or no direct oversight by governments.

A rail safety regime that continues to rely on human infallibility and the discredited myth of corporate self-regulation, and expecting another result is, to paraphrase Einstein, the definition of insanity. Lac-Mégantic was collateral damage of decades of deregulation. And yet only those at the bottom of the responsibility pyramid have been blamed. None of those on its upper levels have admitted their role or been held to account. Until this happens the lessons of Lac-Mégantic will not have been learned; and justice for the citizens of Lac-Mégantic will be denied.

Lac Mégantic: Blame the Worker on Steroids

By Jordan Barab - Confined Space, September 28, 2017

An unmanned, half-mile long train “bomb train” carrying tank-cars full of highly explosive crude oil barrels toward a city where it is doomed to derail on a curve, killing everyone in its wake. Luckily, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine show up to save the city at the last second. Everyone lives happily every after.

That was the plot of the 2010 film “Unstoppable.” It’s a fun film. I recommend it.

In real life, however, in the small town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada on July 5, 2016, Denzel and Chris never showed up.

At around 1:00 am on July 6, 2013, an unmanned train carrying 72 tank-cars of highly combustible crude oil barreled down a hill at 65 mph, three times the normal speed, and careened off the track, disgorging six million liters of highly combustible petroleum crude. Within moments the oil exploded. The resulting inferno obliterated most of the downtown and incinerated 47 persons.

As might be expected, there were many stories to be told here, and hopefully someone is writing a book: the safety of transporting highly hazardous crude oil in fragile tank cars over thousands of miles of poorly maintained track; the impact of an out-of control fossil fuel economy on the environment, on workers in the industry and on citizens in its wake; the damage caused by a rapacious rail company focused more on cost cutting than safety; and the weakness of government oversight (even in Canada.)

But the story we’ll be telling here is one that we’ve heard many times before — the tendency of those who have responsibility for a catastrophe to shift blame onto individual workers instead of identifying the root causes and systemic problems that, if addressed, could prevent future catastrophes.  In this case we’re focusing on the arrest of the engineer and sole crew member, Tom Harding, as well as traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaitre. Harding, Labrie and Demaitre were were handcuffed and frog-marched to prison. All three have pleaded not-guilty to 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.  Jury selection is currently under way.

I’ve been writing this on and off for several months, since I attended a music benefit for the rail workers. As I began looking into their story, in injustice and plain stupidity of their prosecution became alarmingly evident. I could probably write a book on this one incident (and hopefully someone is already doing that), but out of consideration for my readers, I’m going to make this as short as possible. As those of you who read Confined Space have probably guessed, this is going to be an article on the stupidity of blaming workers for this tragedy when as we will see, there was a train-car load of other systemic causes that, if not addressed, will result in many more of these catastrophes.

Also note that I will frequently refer to Andrew Hopkins’ book Lessons From Longford: The Esso Gas Plant Explosion which lays out many of the principles of conducting a root cause investigation of the systemic causes of an industrial disaster.

Fritz Edler on Green Unionism

Senator Backed by Rail Companies Introduces New Bill That Would De-Regulate Rail Industry

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, July 25, 2017

A new bill by one of the rail industry’s favorite senators looks to change how the industry is regulated to allow “market forces to improve rail safety.” In June, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who happens to chair the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, introduced the Railroad Advancement of Innovation and Leadership with Safety (RAILS) Act.

In essence, the bill seeks to shift the rail industry toward a self-regulatory — and more difficult to enforce — approach to safety known as “performance-based regulation,” an effort first reported by DeSmog after a Congressional hearing in May.

In that hearing, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) advocated for performance-based regulations for safety, saying that government should “allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits.” That's what you should expect when moving to a system relying on market forces to improve safety.

Speaking of market forces, it should come as no surprise that the top donor to Senator Fischer’s election campaigns is rail company Union Pacific. Or that four of her top eleven donors are rail companies, which include Berkshire Hathaway (owner of rail company BNSF), Norfolk Southern, and CSX.

That helps explain why she is pushing to allow the industry to self-regulate via performance-based regulations. Even in a pro-industry opinion piece in the publication RailwayAge, written by a former employee of rail lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads, it wasn’t possible to sell the bill without noting that it allows industry to regulate itself:

…performance-based safety standards mean rather than the [Federal Railroad Administration] prescribing particular actions, such as mileage-based brake tests and specific operations and maintenance procedures, the agency would specify a safety outcome — such as a maximum accident-type rate or component failure rate — and allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving that target.”

What could go wrong if you allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving safety? Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: Lac-Mégantic.

Stand With Lac-Mégantic Defendants

By the Ottawa-Outaouais General Membership Branch - Ottawa-Outaouais IWW, July 23, 2017

Whereas, the railroad and the government has sought to blame the employees for the natural result of the combined reckless work rules and policies that undercut safety and even basic common sense.

Whereas, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board’s 18 causes for the disaster are all company policy driven.

Whereas, the MMA (Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway) has declared bankruptcy and will face no charges for their own negligence.

Whereas, two railroad workers face criminal charges and a life sentence for a tragedy caused by unsafe railroad management policies.

Whereas, the Ottawa – Outaouais IWW stand in solidarity with all workers facing unsafe work conditions and persecution from bosses and state agents

Be it resolved that, the Ottawa – Outaouais IWW fully endorses the Railroad Workers United hardingdefense.org campaign to have all charges dropped against railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie.

Solidarity with the victims. Solidarity with the workers. Hold the bosses to account!

Brain Labor Report 7.5.2017 - JP Wright

John Paul Wright interviewed by Wes Brain - Brain Labor Report, July 5, 2017

On the Brain Labor Report for July 5 we talk with labor, railroad and folk singer JP Wright.

railroadmusic.org

download here via archive.org

Summer of Solidarity and Rail Safety

By staff - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, July 3, 2017

How many more have to die?

July 6th this year marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning September 11th this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers, Tom Harding and Richard Labrie.

Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, overlong train, defective equipment, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.  But in Lac-Mégantic, SINCE the wreck, the supposedly safely restored wreck curve has now deteriorated and keeps that community at risk.  Everyone there tightens up when a train passes now.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

An Open Letter to Our Allies in the Fight for Safe Rails and a Sustainable Environment

Open Letter - By Railroad Workers United, June 7, 2017

No More Lac-Mégantics – Drop the Charges

July 6th marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning in early September this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers.

Some of us focus on how dangerous this kind of cargo is. Trains carrying volatile crude are called “Bomb Trains” for a reason. Some of us focus more on rail safety, no matter what or who is on the train. We push for safer work schedules and big enough train crews to handle an unusual situation or an emergency. Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

You’d expect railroaders to point the finger at management. But we’re not the only ones. Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. Instead railroad workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie will be on trial this fall in Quebec. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

Railroad Workers United is going to mark the Lac-Mégantic anniversary wherever we are. We’ll stand in solidarity with the people of Lac-Mégantic like we have for four years, and talk about rail safety. That’s who we are. But we’ll make sure to point out that scapegoating two railroad workers for this tragedy will make railroads and communities across the continent less safe.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

Justice for Lac-Mégantic requires Dropping the Charges Against Harding & Labrie

Sign on to this appeal! - Contact: (202) 798-3327 | info@railroadworkersunited.org

Backbone Campaign’s people-powered plan to electrify America’s railroads

By Sydney Parker - Real Change, May 3, 2017

In our fractured political climate, it’s hard to envision a cause that could unite a rural farmer with a big-city tech worker, a union laborer with a grassroots environmentalist, or a tribal leader with a government official, but Bill Moyer thinks he’s found just the cause: Solutionary Rail.

Solutionary Rail proposes that the public electrify America’s railroads, run them on renewable energy and transform railroad corridors into electricity superhighways transmitting wind and solar energy from remote rural areas to urban centers. If enacted, Moyer said the proposal would recenter the role of rail in U.S. transportation and provide the public with a new sustainable source of economic vitality.

In other words, with Solutionary Rail, everybody wins.  

“It provides almost a psychic relief from the burden of being defined by what we oppose,” said Moyer, who serves as executive director of the Washington state-based Backbone Campaign, a nonporift that creates “artful activism.” “This offers an opportunity to be for something great, to be in dialogue with communities that we may not have anything else otherwise in common about some shared interest.”

It all began with Mike Elliott, a rail labor leader affiliated with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. In 2013, Elliott challenged Moyer to devise a “green” concept for modernization of the northern corridor railroad. Elliott is best known in Washington state for blowing the whistle on safety violations by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. His call for change was echoed by hundreds of BNSF employees fed up with the status quo.

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