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shortline railroads

The Lac-Mégantic disaster: was it just the brakes? - The Big Problem with Letting Small Railroads Haul Oil

By Eric de Place and Rich Feldman - Sightline Daily, October 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec—where 47 people were killed by a Bakken oil train derailment—is commonly understood to have resulted from a train slipping its brakes and then rolling downhill into town where it crashed disastrously. It was a tragedy, but it should not be considered just a mechanical accident.

In truth, it was a self-reinforcing chain of events and conditions caused by underinvestment, lack of maintenance, and staff cutbacks. And it’s a lesson the Northwest should heed because it illuminates the risks of allowing small regional and short line railroads to pick up unit trains of crude oil from bigger railroads like BNSF and transport them short distances to refineries and terminals. The Northwest is home to at least two small railroads with big oil-by-rail aspirations. One already hauls oil trains several times a week through Portland and small towns in northwest Oregon while the other, plagued by a string of recent derailments, aims to service no fewer than three terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

The story from Quebec—of what happened to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad—is the story of a disaster waiting to happen. MMA was a regional railroad assembled in 2002 by a holding company from the assets of bankrupt Iron Road Railways, which owned four small railroads operating in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec. MMA had struggled financially from the start just as its major customers in the forestry industry also struggled. It went through a series of cutbacks to staff and maintenance.

Increased traffic from oil-by-rail was going to be MMA’s ticket to financial stability. Instead, following the Lac-Mégantic wreck, MMA was forced into bankruptcy, leaving billions of dollars of cleanup and damage costs uncovered by its minimal insurance.

What happened was this. MMA picked up the ill-fated oil train of Bakken crude from the Montreal yard of a big player in North American rail, Canadian Pacific (CP), and was transporting it to a refinery in New Brunswick. After passing through Lac-Mégantic, the engineer parked the train on a hill above town for the night. He is now accused of setting an insufficient number of hand brakes that were acting as a back-up to the train’s air-brake system and of not performing a brake test effectively. The hand brake issue only became a problem because locomotive 5017, which was powering the air-brake system for the entire oil train, was shut down.*

And the reason this locomotive was turned off? Because when it had caught on fire earlier in the night the responding firefighters had to turn it off.

And the reason this locomotive caught on fire? Chronic underinvestment by the railroad. According to court documents, MMA’s own employees point to underinvestment by the railway that led to the company using second-hand locomotives, operating rundown equipment, tolerating damaged tracks, and performing minimal maintenance. One worker testified that “he saw little maintenance done on locomotives and that locomotive 5017 was in particularly poor condition.”