The wages of Lac Megantic

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, July 13, 2013

I’ve put off commenting upon the tragedy in Lac Megantic, Quebec. First of all, what is there to do but cry when 50 innocent lives get snuffed out in a moment’s time? Second, so much remains unknown that it is premature to state a cause and assign blames, and that’s the responsibility of someone else, in any event.

Among the mysteries: What caused the fireball explosions that set Lac Megantic instantly aflame? Probably not the crude oil cars themselves, because oil doesn’t explode. The fireball had all the elements of a propane explosion, but from where? The news media reporting has been tone deaf to this issue. And did the engineer set or fail to set sufficient hand brakes on the cars to hold the train on the descending grade? These are two huge questions among many. I have no answers.

But there are a couple of points to bring up, beginning with one-person crews. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic had a sole person aboard this heavy unit train of more than 70 cars. A friend of mine, a Union Pacific locomotive engineer, had this to say yesterday:

“Do you realize what it takes to properly secure a train on a grade? I’ve done it countless times. Parking the train on the grade, the hoghead secures the locos while the conductor secures a sufficient number of handbrakes on the train itself. It’s a very time consuming process with engineer and conductor working in coordination, as well as a pain in the ass, but that which has to be done. And I can only imagine what one person must have to go through to secure a 10,000-ton train. Running back and forth. Tying the handbrakes on locos and train, then going back up into the train and kicking off the independents and Big Air to see if you’ve got one that won’t roll away if the air doesn’t bleed off. My god, it’s a hell of a job with two men, my friend, even if the hog law isn’t nipping at you, and it’s even more stressful if the 12-hour clock is ticking. Only when you are quite certain the thing is as tight as Dick’s hat band can you set the 20-pound reduction that should allow you to get off the train with a clear conscience.”

I’ve quoted him at length to make the point that it’s a lot to put on one person. There are Federal Railroad Administration rules in the U.S. permitting one-person crews, just as there are FRA rules to permit no-person trains run from the ground by remote control. Governments and railroads themselves are pretty good at backward thinking — how to prevent the last catastrophe. The 2008 collision in Southern California between the Metrolink commuter train and a UP freight led to a ban on personal use of cell phones on moving trains (FRA inspired) and the multi-billion-dollar installation of positive train control (act of Congress). I suspect that authorities in both the U.S. and Canada will impose new restrictions on one-person crews. The Class I freight railroads will be set back in their quest for one-person crews aboard through trains that do no work en route, thanks to Lac Megantic.

Even more important, in my opinion, the movement of crude oil by rail will inevitably be affected. Those who predict business as usual for this growing source of railroad revenue are blinding themselves. Environmentalists, among whom are many who want oil, especially heavy Canadian oil, kept forever in the ground, now have a stick with which to beat the railroads to death, and they will try. Think: human blockades across routes used by oil trains. Regulators can impose new rules to strengthen steel tank cars that carry oil, and this would come at a cost to railroad shippers. Every added cost tilts the equation of rail versus pipeline toward the pipeline.

What I am saying is that the railroad industry will pay a price for Lac Megantic. Just what that price is we don’t yet know, but believe me, it’s coming.

And finally, on a personal note: Ed Burkhardt. The principal owner of RailWorld, which in turn owns the MM&A, will turn 75 this month. Most people his age would be long since retired, but not Ed, who is doing what he has loved to do for more than half a century, which is be a railroader. I’ve known the man for many years, and like most other people, think of Ed as a kind and decent man. It’s his undeserved bad luck to forever be known, not as the creator of Wisconsin Central and other economically successful railroads around the world, but as the man whose train brought us Lac Megantic. And that is a tragedy all its own. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy