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Disaster in Lac-Mégantic
July 8, 2013 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Last Saturday morning, a town in Quebec exploded. A runaway train carrying roughly 100,000 liters of crude oil derailed and subsequently exploded in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in the early hours of Saturday morning. A significant amount of the downtown is burnt or leveled, and as the search for survivors continues, residents are beginning to realize the scope of the destruction

The reasons, human cost, and environmental effects are still be determined.

The incident has provoked discussion in Canada about the safety of the railway system, the sensibility of shipping dangerous goods by rail, and how this could affect public attitudes towards the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

More photos.
posted by The Notorious SRD (151 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
While this is receiving some media coverage, it'd seem that you have to seek it out. Let's hope whomever is handling this does a better job than Rick Perry did with West. I say 'did' and not 'is doing' because he's essentially done with it, has been since maybe a week after the explosion happened.
posted by item at 5:42 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something similar happened in Weyauwega, WI - resulting in an evacuation that lasted 16 days.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:43 PM on July 8, 2013


I have a relative in the Quebec area (La Tuque), and she said that the local media has been most likely to blame for the lack of widespread attention. As she said, due to the large amount of speculation and conflicting reports, it's been hard for the locals to form a decent understanding.

Couple this with the largely French-language presentation, and the rapid (almost by the minute) series of updates, I could see a $15/hr journalist taking one look at the Google news feed and saying "Je m'en fous..." and heading to an early lunch.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:51 PM on July 8, 2013


Seems like pipelines would actually be safer. Not that I'm in favor of building oil pipelines, but if you were transporting liquid hydrogen it's obvious a pipeline would be safer then hauling tanks on trains.
posted by delmoi at 5:58 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the lack of coverage also has to do with the plane crash. Weird that the West event also happened just after another tragedy.
posted by bleep at 6:02 PM on July 8, 2013


While this is receiving some media coverage, it'd seem that you have to seek it out.

It seems to get some coverage just about every day on CBC. FWIW.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:06 PM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


And on Al Jazeera.
posted by seemoreglass at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seems like pipelines would actually be safer.

You're probably right. That is not to say there haven't been catastrophic pipeline failures in metropolitan areas, such as the San Bruno pipeline failure for example.

To go off on a tangent: What makes the statistics difficult for me to put into context is that whatever the safety stats are for pipelines vs. rail, they also transmit very different volumes. Pipelines may be safer overall, but they also transport vastly more crude.

For example, in my home province (Alberta) there are more miles of pipelines in the ground than there are miles of roads, so while pipeline safety may be excellent(?) the rather frequent leaks are not inconsistent with the shear volume of product being moved and the scale of the pipeline network.

I guess what I'm trying to say, poorly, is that "safety" doesn't always mean what I think it should mean.
posted by selenized at 6:14 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


And the Chicago local news. I don't think there is a lack of coverage.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:15 PM on July 8, 2013


A question for someone who knows about trains:

The coverage I am seeing today says that the head of the train company said the brakes of the train had been disabled.

Elaboration - the train had 5 locomotives, and that the locomotives must be running in order for the brakes to work. The engineer had turned off 4 of the 5 and gone to town to sleep, as was normal; the next engineer was expected the next morning. At some point, the 5th locomotive was turned off, which meant the whole train did not have brakes. To turn off the locomotive would have required turning off a button in the cabin and a lever outside the train.

So -- is that true? I thought that train brakes default to a brakes-applied configuration, so if a train loses power, the brakes go on automatically. The article seems to say the opposite. Anybody know?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:15 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Article with info about the brakes being disabled:
Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said Sunday night that the train’s sole engineer shut down four of the five locomotive units on the train, as is standard procedure, in the neighbouring community of Nantes before heading to Lac Mégantic to sleep. Burkhardt said the next engineer was probably due to arrive at daybreak.

But someone managed to shut down the fifth locomotive unit, he said. The railroad alleges someone tampered with the controls of the fifth engine, the one maintaining brake pressure to keep the train stopped.

“If the operating locomotive is shut down, there’s nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can’t be held in place any longer,” Burkhardt said.

There are two ways to shut down the fifth unit: There’s an emergency lever on the outside of the locomotive that anyone wandering by could access. Or, there are a number of levers and buttons inside the unlocked cabin. Both means were used, said Burkhardt.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:19 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


100,000 L would be only about one tank car load of liquid. I believe we're talking about 72 tank cars x 100,000 L each, which is 7.2 million liters or about 60,000 US barrels of oil. Quite a large amount.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:21 PM on July 8, 2013


(Also, I gather there was a fire on the train earlier that night, when it was already parked. Local fire crews came and put out the fire, and may have turned off the locomotive (?), although railroad personnel should then have inspected and turned it back on.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:21 PM on July 8, 2013


saboteur!
posted by stbalbach at 6:22 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, the circumstances are extremely puzzling. Apparently the engineer had parked the train for the night, applied the brakes, and gone to his hotel. Then there was a small fire of some sort on the train that a local fire department put out. Sometime after that, the train started moving downhill...

From the Toronto Star:
On a beautiful summer night, we are to believe, 73 driverless cars of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway somehow broke loose on a siding near Nantes, 12 kilometres to the west of town, and began rolling quietly, unnoticed, down the hilly incline, gathering speed in their “inertia’’ — no power other than gravity — aiming right at the heart of an unsuspecting community at the bottom.


There were some amazing photos of the devastation here (like scenes from WWII), but while trying to post them to MetaFilter, I discovered that they were removed. Editor's comment:

The city of Lac-Mégantic has requested that the photos part of our report on the Lac-Mégantic incident be withdrawn because they are now considered evidence of a possible crime scene: we have immediately complied with their request. Thank you for your comprehension (understanding).

Christian Thibault, Editor

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:23 PM on July 8, 2013


Sounds like (CBC radio) there was a small electrical fire on one of the locomotives - discovered while the engineer was away from the train - and the fire brigade showed up, put it out and while doing so, shut off the one running locomotive. Which would seem like a sensible, non-homicidal thing to do. I mean who would think that the train's engine would need to be running to maintain the brakes?
Though this explains why, in the many times I've been messing around on trains and in rail yards, they always seem to leave them humming away (in fact I figured at first it was probably some kids messing around in the locomotive who had turned off the brakes, perhaps accidentally).
On preview - yeah the fire guy who the CBC talked to said they'd called the railway company, and maybe the situation wasn't explained very well but the railway guys were like, ok, don't worry about it.
posted by Flashman at 6:24 PM on July 8, 2013


100,000 L would be only about one tank car load of liquid. I believe we're talking about 72 tank cars x 100,000 L each, which is 7.2 million liters or about 60,000 US barrels of oil. Quite a large amount.
posted by Western Infidels


You are quite correct; thanks for noticing that. This article says 113,000 L per car.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2013


The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has a Flickr set here.

I read today on Twitter that officials are asking for combs and toothbrushes from missing people, to assist them with DNA matching. Horrible.
posted by heatherann at 6:29 PM on July 8, 2013


[...] I thought that train brakes default to a brakes-applied configuration, so if a train loses power, the brakes go on automatically.[...]

I was wondering about that myself.

I read earlier today that the brakes in question were air brakes, so you could imagine that power would need to be supplied to the system to maintain air pressure. Otherwise as air would slowly leaked out and the brake system would let go.

However you would think some sort of emergency break would kick in or something. It seems kind of idiotic to have a system that fails in a catastrophic and obvious way.
posted by selenized at 6:30 PM on July 8, 2013


Pictures of the devastation can be seen here.

Police said some 50 people are missing — a figure that includes the 13 unidentified bodies that have been recovered since the train derailed at about 1 a.m. ET Saturday. --CBC
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2013


It boggles my mind that it is legal to leave a train of any kind on an incline, parked using power that can be externally disabled or even just run out.

But of course North American freight rail companies view derailments as just part of the cost of doing business (and cheaper than better systems and track), and they don't see the need for better and better-enforced regulations. Which means neither does the Federal government.
posted by parudox at 6:32 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Firemen cut power to runaway train's brakes
posted by Flashman at 6:32 PM on July 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


The American Red Cross has been called in to help in Quebec because the Canadian Red Cross is all in Alberta. Thank goodness for kind neighbours.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:34 PM on July 8, 2013 [11 favorites]


Explanation of North American freight train air brakes here.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:43 PM on July 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've heard that crews from western Maine (e.g. Rangeley) are up there too.
posted by seemoreglass at 6:45 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


How Train Air Brakes Work

So does this mean that the slow bleed-off of air pressure is what caused the brakes to eventually fail? You would think that this scenario would be an obvious one for fail-safe equipment designers to anticipate...
posted by anthill at 6:45 PM on July 8, 2013


"Don't park a train full of fuel at the top of a hill" does seem like a big part of this, along with "don't use brakes that require a constant supply of energy"* -- but it's a bit early to start judging, I guess.

*The building I work in has locks that require the power to be on. Very futuristic, no doubt, and you wouldn't want to need the power *on* to open the door -- if there was a fire, say -- but back in old-timey days people had simple mechanical solutions to problems like "lock" and "brake" that didn't necessarily require "improvement"...
Now there's an app for that.

posted by uosuaq at 6:50 PM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am given to understand from a friend in Quebec that local reports say nearly all of the dead were in this bar when the train exploded right next to it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:59 PM on July 8, 2013


Yeah, I read those "how train brakes work" links and find myself still at kind of a loss about how it could be SOP to, yeah, park a train full of fuel at the top of a hill and have such slim safety margins.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:59 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are three brakes on a train. The main air brake is called the Automatic brake. The fail safe on freight cars is for the brakes to apply if the brake pipe loses air. There is an air brake that applies on the locomotives only, it's called the Independent brake. It is direct acting and does depend on air pressure to apply. The third is dynamic braking which uses the traction motors as generators to slow the train down while in motion, similar to regenerative braking on automobiles. The dynamic brake only works when the train is in motion. There are also manually actuated hand brakes on each car and the locomotive.

It appears that the engineer left the train with only the Independent brake on and didn't set any hand brakes.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 7:09 PM on July 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


(Regarding the comparative safety of pipelines over trains, I think it is analogous to the fact that per mile travelled, air travel is safer than car travel...but when there is *cough* a plane accident *cough* it gets a LOT of attention.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:12 PM on July 8, 2013


There was also a chemical-car train that derailed on an old bridge spanning the Bow River in Calgary, right after the flooding. One thing that is not being reported here is that the rail companies answer to no one, certainly not the municipalities they bisect. This is because they are covered by Federal transportation regulations, not local ones. I worked for a national trucking company in Canada about 15 years ago, and everything about the labour regulations was far more lax than working for a company covered under provincial law.

Terrible stuff.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:14 PM on July 8, 2013


Couple things that occur to me. Ten years ago, I worked for a company that built tank cars.
1)I'm not seeing how the brakes failed. Compressed air in the lines keeps the brakes disengaged - so if you cut the air lines the brakes are applied.
2) The largest tank cars are 30,000 gallons, so 100,000 liters is the per-car volume.
posted by notsnot at 7:15 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


The CBC posted photos showing the town before and after the explosion. The scale of the destruction is shocking.
posted by phyrewerx at 7:15 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


This puts me in mind of Waiting For The Evening News, a short story by by Tim Gautreaux.

A train engineer, drunk on cheap whisky, is flying through the night along a route he has travelled thousands of times before. He is contemplating the sameness of the journey and how it hardly matters if he is there or not when something catastrophic happens. The train derails and the chemical containers it is carrying smash to bits and start to burn. The engineer runs off into the woods because he is drunk and thinks he will be sacked. He hitches a lift with a priest and finds a motel for the night thinking he will call in when he is sober. We never really find out why the train derailed but the engineer, though drunk, is convinced it would have happened anyway and that it was not his fault. When he turns on the TV the next morning he is shocked to discover the train crash is all over the local news. It seems the chemical spill is pretty bad and the fire is out of control. Not only that the derailed cars destroyed a Seven Eleven and mashed half a small town.

The story stayed with me. My heart goes out to the townsfolk, but I can't help but wonder what's going through the head of the driver. I guess I just identify with perpetrators of enormous fuck-ups.
posted by misterbee at 7:17 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm most surprised that the engineer apparently slept through the initial fire without anyone contacting him. Report any trouble at all in a rail yard and the CN Rail Police will be immediately dispatched, often arriving in minutes from the nearest outpost. So the local fire dept extinguished a train fire and CN just says "Ok, thanks for calling!" and does nothing?
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:17 PM on July 8, 2013


It's not CN (or CP) though, it's Montreal, Maine and Atlantic. Right next to the American border, really.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:35 PM on July 8, 2013


Yeah, the "train parked on a hill is dangerous" angle seems wrong and over simple. One has to really screw up to make a train move on its own. As the air brake link mentioned, this was invented well over 100 years ago, and thus when train brakes fail, the train stops. (Same as truck trailer brakes, BTW.)

Also, there is nothing unsafe about leaving a train parked. (parked correctly, anyway.) It's quite a common occurrence. In rural areas, you can watch trains pull over and the engineer jump out to pick up a hamburger and take a leak. Over by where I used to live, they used to park trains on weekends. They'd let a guy out and unhook the train so it wouldn't block the RR crossings overnight.
posted by gjc at 7:40 PM on July 8, 2013


Thanks Monday; my Ontario assumptions were showing again.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:46 PM on July 8, 2013


Those poor people.

The most direct way to donate is through the Canadian Red Cross itself, by telephone at 1-800-418-1111 or through their website.

posted by madamjujujive at 8:05 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


While this is receiving some media coverage, it'd seem that you have to seek it out.

It seems to get some coverage just about every day on CBC. FWIW.


This story was essentially every column inch of pages A1 through A10 in today's Toronto Star.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:11 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure this will be unsurprising, but it's on the cover of every newspaper in Montreal. News that happens on the weekends often gets short shrift, but not this one.
posted by jeather at 8:15 PM on July 8, 2013


With regard to the air brakes, on trucks it's the air pressure that allows them to be released. Loss of air pressure causes the brakes to be applied. I think train air brakes use the same principle. If not, that's very odd.
posted by rmmcclay at 8:29 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


“If the operating locomotive is shut down, there’s nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can’t be held in place any longer,” Burkhardt said.
A simple design change would be to have the breaks held shut with a spring, so that they need a charge to stay open - you could even have an electromagnetic lock that wouldn't require much power to stay in the 'open' position, but would require some. If the system broke down you could have some guy come out with a crowbar to pry off the spring if necessary.

It sounds like there were redundant safety systems (the hand brakes) but they weren't turned on.
Yeah, the "train parked on a hill is dangerous" angle seems wrong and over simple. One has to really screw up to make a train move on its own. As the air brake link mentioned, this was invented well over 100 years ago, and thus when train brakes fail, the train stops. (Same as truck trailer brakes, BTW.)
If that's true (or true in this case), then how did this happen?
posted by delmoi at 8:33 PM on July 8, 2013


One of the stranger experiences of my life was the evacuation of Mississauga following a train derailment in 1979. Driving out of the completely militarized neighbourhood with cops with shotguns and gasmasks standing on corners. Cops cars with megaphones driving around announcing the evacuation. A week camping on the floor in the corner of a convention centre eating donated burgers from McDonald’s.

Trains are things that sort of glide through our backyards carrying all kinds of dangerous stuff that you never think about until you have to.
posted by srboisvert at 8:40 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


A few points worth mentioning:

-it's suspected that most of the victims in the bar were vapourized.
- the track in question may be owned by Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic, but is the actual train? Given that it started in North Dakota, and passed through Toronto and Montreal on CP tracks, I think there are a few entities involved.
-its often forgotten, but pretty much every metre of freight railway infrastructure is privately owned.
-it's worth doing a comparison of the safety records of pipelines vs. railways, at list with respect to spills, if not deaths and injuries. I suspect that pipelines actually probably come off worse.
posted by dry white toast at 8:45 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Trains are things that sort of glide through our backyards carrying all kinds of dangerous stuff that you never think about until you have to.

Yeah, I was just thinking about this as I was stopped waiting for a train on my way to work this morning, watching all the Class 3 Flammable Liquid signs and capacity labels on the endless tank cars go by slow as can be maybe 20 feet from my face, unable to go anywhere with the cars packed in all around me.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:49 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sitting in the heart of ND oil country where a lot of these trains get loaded. There's three of those massive loading facilities within a half hour of me, not to mention a number of trains going through town every day. They can load an entire train of 90+ cars in just under 12 hours. An oil company exec told me that their marketing departments can get an extra $10-25 a barrel because they can deliver so much oil to a refinery instead of a slow pipeline trickle.

My sympathies to all of those in Quebec. We are only going to see more of this insanity.
posted by Ber at 8:52 PM on July 8, 2013


My bad; I didn't read far enough into the article. Seems like the design could be improved upon.
posted by gjc at 8:52 PM on July 8, 2013


From anthills post on how air breaks work.
If the air line to a car fails the brakes apply, but they work using air tanks located in each car, when the tanks lose pressure due to slow leaks over time the brakes disengage. As far as I can tell no pressure means no braking. The Montreal Gazette says that activating hand brakes on enough cars to stop the train from moving is standard procedure when parking a train.
posted by colophon at 8:54 PM on July 8, 2013


Service brakes (the powerful brakes used to actually stop a moving train on a daily basis) on trains are different from those on trucks, but they are similar in that they are applied by the air pressure in tanks, and returned to their original position by springs.

Parking brakes are different. On trucks, they are kept in the applied position by springs, and need to be released by the application of air pressure. The parking brakes on a truck are much weaker than the service brakes.

There may be a system like that on some rail cars, but there isn't always one. Earlier I think I saw a reference to the driver manually applying parking brakes on some of the tank cars, but I can't find it anymore.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:57 PM on July 8, 2013


There was also a chemical-car train that derailed on an old bridge spanning the Bow River in Calgary, right after the flooding.

Thankfully they were able to clean that up within 24 hours, and none of the petrochemical product was spilled.

Apparently what they did was tow away what they could, strap down the remaining cars on the bridge, and used a crane to load them one-by-one on to a much newer railway bridge just a few metres away.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:10 PM on July 8, 2013


For example, in my home province (Alberta) there are more miles of pipelines in the ground than there are miles of roads

Do you mean railroads, or...?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:10 PM on July 8, 2013


It boggles my mind that it is legal to leave a train of any kind on an incline, parked using power that can be externally disabled or even just run out.

From a freight train's perspective, ground that looks pretty much flat to you and me isn't flat. You sometimes see trains roll backwards down almost imperceptible slopes when they fail to make it up the "hill".
posted by hoyland at 9:11 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


In other words, there's virtually nowhere not on an incline.
posted by hoyland at 9:12 PM on July 8, 2013


I once helped load a grain car at a historical village. It certainly moved freely when pushed by hand. I have no idea if it was representative of a modern train car though, let alone a tanker car.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:15 PM on July 8, 2013


It boggles my mind that it is legal to leave a train

... with enough explosive fuel on board to destroy a town unattended.
posted by philip-random at 9:27 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


For example, in my home province (Alberta) there are more miles of pipelines in the ground than there are miles of roads

Do you mean railroads, or...?


According to Alberta government figures available for pipelines[pdf] and roads, Alberta had around 375,000 km of pipelines in 2005, and that number was growing rapidly, yet only 257,000 km of paved roads and highways, with an additional 165,000 km unpaved as of a date I couldn't find. Those numbers suggest Alberta had more miles of pipeline than paved road even a decade ago. I suspect that current numbers would show more pipeline in Alberta than roads period.

Yep, that is definitely oil country.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:34 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Propane suspected in Quebec explosions: Evidence mounts that the runaway train slammed into other railroad cars carrying liquid propane." Via the Portland (Me) Press Herald

We've been getting good local coverage here, and a lot of it.
posted by anastasiav at 9:35 PM on July 8, 2013


Some freight train companies are swtiching from having two engineers to one engineer plus remote control. This train only had the one engineer.

On the cbc this evening, a frontman for the frieght train company was pretty quick to blame the firefighters who had put out the earlier engine fire.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:38 PM on July 8, 2013


"Tampered with" is definitely blamey language.
posted by Catch at 10:10 PM on July 8, 2013


A primer on railroad air brakes for the uninitiated:

The air that powers the entire system is provided by mechanical compressors on the diesel engines of the locomotives. Modern train line pressure is in the neighborhood of 110 PSI.

The air is pumped into air reservoirs, usually on the bottom of the locomotives near the fuel tanks. These provide volume for reserve capacity and charging the train line.

Each car in the train has a reservoir that consists of two halves: a service half and an emergency half, that looks a bit like a truncated football. It is divided at the joint by a metal plate that separates the sections.

If there is no air pressure at all on the car, the brake rigging is slack, in whatever position the mechanical linkages best allow. There will be no pressure to speak of on the wheels from the brake shoes..

When the locomotives pump up the train line, the individual car reservoirs assume the brake line pressure. This is why it can take 20 to 30 minutes to pump up a train line from an unpressurized condition.

To apply the brakes, the locomotive engineer reduces the pressure, via the train brake valve, in the equalizing reservoirs on the locomotive. This allows the engineer to quickly set the desired reduction in brake pipe pressure, while the mile or so of brake like catches up slowly through an orifice that is graduated to provide a steady flow of air from the brake pipe to atmosphere. When the brake line pressure matches the equalizing reservoir pressure, the orifice is closed.

The same thing sort of happens at the car end. On each car there is a valve called a triple valve. If the triple valve senses a lowering of the brake pipe pressure relative to the service reservoir pressure, it vents the service reservoir to equalize the pressure. Rather than vent to atmosphere, though, it vents the pressure in the car reservoir to the brake pistons, thus applying mechanical force to the brakes.

I mentioned an orifice earlier in my discussion of the brake line. The orifice is important because it only allows pressure to leak down at a controlled rate. If an emergency is encountered, the engineer has one more options- "Wiping the Clock", or "The Big Hole"- an emergency application. This is essentially an uncontrolled dumping of the equalizing reservoirs through an unmetered, rather large opening.

The emergency application sends a rapid, low pressure pulse down the train line. The triple valves on each car sense this and immediately dump the entire pressure of the emergency half of the service reservoir to the brake pistons, as well as venting it's portion of the service brake line to atmosphere, to assist in propagating the emergency application along the train line. (This prevents residual pressure in the car system from working against the emergency application).

There, now you have a foundation to understand how these things work.

When the last locomotive was shut off, there was now no supply of air to maintain the reservoirs or the train line. Eventually, slow leaks along the train line gradually released all the pressure in the reservoirs, and the brakes went slack. This can take anywhere from minutes to hours. When I worked on the railroad, you didn't leave trains unattended on a grade, ever. If you were going to leave a train unattended, you'd better chock the wheels and set enough mechanical hand brakes to prevent the thing from rolling away.

Undoubtedly human error, IMNSHO.
posted by pjern at 10:11 PM on July 8, 2013 [35 favorites]


Here are the rules for parking in the Norfolk Southern operating manual. This would be typical for all railroads. See rule L-236 (PDF). The parking brakes on the locomotives are direct mechanisms that clamp the brake shoes on the wheels without using air.


Before locomotives are left unattended on any track other than a servicing track, the effectiveness of the parking brakes must be tested as follows to ensure the locomotive consist will not move:

1. Apply the parking brake on each locomotive.

2. Place the Independent and the Automatic brakes in the RELEASE position. The locomotive consist must remain stationary for 10 seconds.

3. Place throttle in the No. 1 power position or higher, if necessary, until movement occurs.
NOTE:If the locomotive(s) isstanding on a grade, the movement must be in a descending direction.

4. Place the throttle in IDLE when the locomotive consist begins to move. Locomotive consist must stop within 25 feet. If the locomotive consist:
• stops within 25 feet, reapply the Independent and the Automatic brakes (Consider the parking brake(s) effective)
• does NOT Stop within 25 feet, place the Independent brake in FULL APPLICATION.
If the locomotive consist does not:
• stand for the required 10 seconds
• stop within 25 feet
immediately notify the Chief Train Dispatcher and arrange for an alternate means of securement or a different location to leave the locomotive consist.


To summarize, there are two tests. First they apply the parking brakes on the locomotives. Then release the train and independent locomotive air brakes. The train should not move.

Second, you engage the locomotive to give the train a shove until it moves against the handbrakes. When the locomotive returns to idle, the handbrakes should stop movement within 25 feet.

If this test were performed, then the train should not have moved even if the engine was shut down and air pressure was lost. The parking brakes should have held.
posted by JackFlash at 10:12 PM on July 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


.
posted by chapps at 11:41 PM on July 8, 2013


So -- is that true? I thought that train brakes default to a brakes-applied configuration, so if a train loses power, the brakes go on automatically. The article seems to say the opposite. Anybody know?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 AM on July 9


GrumpyOldGeek pretty much as it in describing the main types of train brake. On the trains I drive, we have things called parking brakes which are present on every powered bogie. These brakes are "Spring applied, air released", which means that it is only the existence of sufficient main reservoir air pressure that keeps these brakes off. Should there be any sort of critical loss of air pressure for any reason - say, a burst pipe or the compressors being powered off or disabled - then a point will be reached when there will not be enough air to stop the brakes from automatically applying. It's a fail-safe system.

If the train involved in this event did not have such a system I would be both surprised and appalled. I have to wonder if some sort of sabotage was involved here.
posted by Decani at 1:13 AM on July 9, 2013


I have to wonder if some sort of sabotage was involved here.

If so, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is perhaps a prime suspect:

Federal funding cut as cost of shipping oil skyrockets

At a time when train shipments of crude oil are expected to skyrocket in Canada, the federal government is cutting funding for Transport Canada, the country’s transportation regulator, by almost 30 per cent, down to $1.5 billion, according to government spending estimates for 2012-13 and 2013-14.

The country’s two major rail companies, CP and CN, carried more than 30,000 carloads of crude oil across North America last year, according to Bloomberg, and the companies told the news service they expect to transport twice that amount this year, as output of crude outpaces space in oil pipelines.

Adding a certain volatility to this mix is a long-term shift to self-regulation in which companies are allowed to “do their own thing” when it comes to safety inspections, former Canadian Safety Council president Émile Therien said.

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:51 AM on July 9, 2013


Lac Megantic is quite near us. The lack of news coverage and knowledge of this in the US is not surprising, but a little sad.
posted by Kitteh at 3:51 AM on July 9, 2013


Photos at The Atlantic.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:08 AM on July 9, 2013


Since when is crude 'explosive'? Flammable, yes. Explosive, not really. To explode, it would have to be whipped into a froth full of bubbles of air/oxygen. Like with a giant whisk wielded by Brunhilda or something like that.
posted by Goofyy at 4:10 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lots of my family live in Megantic (and they are all okay physically). Insane to be woken up Saturday morning to hear about this on the radio.

The tibi fry stand is apparently OK.

In a town of only 6000 losing 50 people will be a serious blow to these guys... especially since Megantic is supposed to be a place where nothing happens.
posted by ServSci at 4:16 AM on July 9, 2013


10 minutes raw video which surfaced yesterday.
posted by jchgf at 4:33 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


The talking on the video is mostly "the entire downtown is burning", variants on "holy fuck", and telling (his girlfriend?) Karine that he's okay.

And this is why the train company is blaming the firefighters.
Patrick Lambert said his team had been trained by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway to handle fires on its line — and that it had intervened to fight four fires on the company’s trains in the last eight years.

He said a resident called late Friday to report a fire in the locomotive, with flames leaping out from the chimney. A dozen firefighters intervened to put out the blaze in Nantes, which is about 10 kilometres up a slope from Lac-Mégantic.

That same train eventually rolled down into Lac-Mégantic, derailed, and exploded into balls of fire, killing at least 13 people and leaving nearly 40 more missing.

Lambert said that when his crew had intervened, the engine was shut off as per the standard operating procedure dictated by MMA. The blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes.

And that’s where the fire department’s involvement ended, he said.

“The people from MMA told us, ‘That’s great — the train is secure, there’s no more fire, there’s nothing anymore, there’s no more danger,’” Lambert told reporters.

“We were given our leave, and we left.”

The case is now being probed by the federal Transportation Safety Board, as well as the provincial police.

The rail company tells the story differently.

Edward Burkhardt, the president and CEO of the railway’s parent company Rail World, Inc., suggested Monday that the fire crew didn’t do enough — and even suggested that the decision to shut off the locomotive to put out the fire might have disabled the brakes.

“As the air pressure deflates, they (the brakes) will become ineffective and an hour or so after the locomotive was shut down, the train rolled away,” Burkhardt told the CBC on Monday.

While the fire service in Nantes has said it left the train in the care of a track-maintenance employee, Burkhardt said it’s possible that person might not have known how to secure the brakes.

“When they get a call about a locomotive having a fire, why did they not rouse the engineer (from bed) and take them out there with them?” he asked.

Burkhardt appeared to downplay his company’s role in the disaster: “Is any of this huge negligence? No, you can’t point to that.”
posted by jeather at 4:55 AM on July 9, 2013


I have to wonder if some sort of sabotage was involved here.

Yeah, that seems to be what the railroad is not-so-subtly implying -- that someone made a deliberate decision to alter the brake status on the engine, both inside and outside. You imagine someone could have been pranking around, but what would be the motivation?

On preview, I see jeather has more information. My next question was why, if as reported railroad representatives were on hand for the fire, the engine/train was left unsecured. This is really going to be the crux of the matter.
posted by dhartung at 4:58 AM on July 9, 2013


The building I work in has locks that require the power to be on. Very futuristic, no doubt

What's it like working in Nakatomi Plaza anyway? Are the repairs they had to make after the Gruber Heist obvious, or did they do a good job renovating it so that you can't even tell?


On a more serious note, I live close to where the Graniteville rail disaster occurred, so this is brings up some bad memories for me. (I was doing some late night grocery shopping that night, when the first responders decided that the Kroger parking lot was a good choice for their initial staging area.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:03 AM on July 9, 2013


Today's cartoon in La Tribune hits it squarely on the nose.
posted by Kitteh at 5:50 AM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Even if the fire department had received training on dealing with locomotive fires, firefighters are not railroad experts. Once the fire had been controlled and the scene handed back to the railroad, it was the railroad's responsibility to ensure that the locomotive was in a safe condition. It seems pretty clear to me that didn't happen.
posted by tommasz at 5:51 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


This could be a case of compound error where more than one party made mistakes that in isolation would not have caused an accident if only everyone else had acted perfectly. Maybe the engineer didn't secure the manual brakes, confident that the running diesel engine would maintain the air brakes all night. Maybe the firefighters assumed that the manual brakes had been engaged (but didn't really check, or know how to check), so therefore it was safe to turn off the locomotive, and assumed the railroad would follow up in a timely manner. Maybe the rail employee who the firefighters spoke to assumed that someone else had already secured the site, or was just literally a track maintenance guy who didn't know enough specifics about the train to realize that the brakes should be checked.

Contributory factors all around, and now it's a PR war to decide who is responsible. And by the way, interested parties might want to investigate why there was an actual fire (a fire near oil filled tank cars) in the first place.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:04 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Firefighters are trained to fight fires, not to maintain and run trains. Whether or not the fire department's decision to turn off the engine led to the failure of the brake, I think MMA held final and full responsibility for running their trains before and after the fire.

If the MMA railway worker didn't know enough, or if he simply assumed the firefighters hadn't changed anything, or that the manual brakes had been left on by the engineer, he failed to act responsibly.

For God's sake, I would think that a fire on the train and the intervention of the firefighters would have been reason enough to get the engineer in from his hotel. But -- he was the one and only, very tired guy working on the train. Maybe he would have been too groggy to do his job properly (and if he failed to put on a second set of brakes before leaving, that would be evidence that he was not functioning properly, too.)

The fact that there was only one employee on a huge train like that, instead of a team of two or more who could spot each other and double check on preparations, may have been accepted practice, even legal by current standards, but it still looks like a crime to me.
posted by maudlin at 6:18 AM on July 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh, and Edward Burkhardt will be coming into town today. After hearing a local's opinion of the man and his company on The Current this morning, he may require a Popemobile to move safely through what's left of the streets.
posted by maudlin at 6:22 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just listened to that too, maudlin! I was agreeing with the guy interviewed who pretty much said he'd have to be an idiot to think that he would be able to walk freely around the town.
posted by Kitteh at 6:26 AM on July 9, 2013


It was very near the border with Maine, and Maine towns sent firefighters. It's gotten a lot of press here. One news report suggested eco-terrorism, which I assume was planted by the railroad, and which is patently absurd. The suggestion hasn't been repeated.
posted by theora55 at 7:08 AM on July 9, 2013


The railroad has been trying to steer towards sabotage or terrorism almost since it was reported.

You'd need someone who knows how to release the parking brakes from the tank cars, and would also set fire to the locomotive. Why not just shut down the locomotive, instead of setting fire to it? You'd be less likely to be caught if the firefighters don't have to come.

If the locomotive's running engine was the only thing keeping the train from moving, then it was never safe, as evidenced by the fact that it caught fire.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:17 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rough translation of the video jchgf linked above:

(heavy breathing)
Saturday, July 6, 2013
Lac-Megantic


At Megantic... whew... July 5, 1:30 in the morning. A train of gas has caught fire... derailed in the town of Megantic. All of downtown is on fire, downtown is totally destroyed. [English]Fucking hell[/English]... oh la la, I'm moving back... Fucking hell... everything's going up, I need to get back... the fire is (...)... unbelievable... 1:38 Karine, are you okay? Yes, listen, Karine, it's the downtown, it's totally on fire... Karine, it's continuing to go up, the trains are cointinuing to leak fire and it's making incredible fireballs... I ran across people from the cafe, they were running, they said they were running, leaving... My God... I'm 200 metres from downtown, I'm taking video, Karine, I've never seen anything like this. It's -- it's unbelievable. My God. It's crazy, Karine. Karine, it's the whole downtown. There's no more downtown. It's completely on fire. I've never seen anything like it. No no no no! Karine, don't get closer! Seriously. Don't owrry about me, I'm being careful, I promise. 3:45 Yes, don't worry about me. My God! My God! [English]Oh my God![/English] I'm having a heart attack (idomatic -- he's not having a heart attack)! Yes, I'm pulling back. Bye. 4:45 (unintelligible) 6:08 No, don't worry. Were there people, or not? Was there somone else? Yannick? Listen, if he's working, (something), leave as quickly as possible. Karine, it's unbelievable, it's spread everywhere. Okay, I'm going to go. (something). Downtown's gone up. (after 7:50, can't make any words out)
posted by Shepherd at 7:23 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


The head of MME talks about his company in today's GM.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:24 AM on July 9, 2013


From the article:
With the derailment, the company’s use of one-man crews has become a matter of public interest. The one-man crew is a practice that is common outside North America, Mr. Burkhardt said. MM&A received special permission from Transport Canada to operate in this way.

“They, frankly, put us through the mill in terms of meeting certain criteria, having procedures in place,” he said.

“I’ll just give you an example: We had to locate every location along our railroad where you could land a helicopter should that be necessary to evacuate a crew member who might become ill,” Mr. Burkhardt said. “I think actually they wanted to use us as a kind of a prototype.”

He added: “Now, at no time have we had any safety problem or anything coming out of the use of single-man crews. There’s no aspect of the incident at Mégantic whatsoever that has anything to do with that, or to infrastructure.

“If we’d had five guys on that train, I think the results would have been the same.”
WTFuckingF? Leaving aside this irrelevant helicopter evacuation bullshit and Mr. Burkhardt's inability to grasp the concepts of human fallibility and the advantages of having a backup, I think Transport Canada should be prepared to answer a few pointed questions pretty soon. And I think they should realize that their prototype fucking failed.
posted by maudlin at 9:36 AM on July 9, 2013


In another article he says: “They went out there by themselves, shut the engine off, doused the fire. A very small fire,” he told The Globe from Chicago... as if these engine fires were just a routine little annoyance on his locomotives hauling 60,000 barrels of crude oil.
posted by Flashman at 9:52 AM on July 9, 2013


Yeah, here's some video of that "small" fire.

Also:
“I hope that I don’t get shot at. I won’t have a bullet proof vest on,” Mr. Burkhardt, founder and chairman of MMA, told the TVA network Monday after saying he plans to travel this week to Lac-Mégantic, Que., the site of the crash. He added he understands people’s anger, having received several threatening messages.
Stay classy, Burkhardt.
posted by maudlin at 10:05 AM on July 9, 2013


Production from the Bakken oil patch has exploded in the past several years. In 2013, the Bakken oil patch produced around as much as 727,000 barrels of oil every day, massively up from the 360,000 produced per day in July of 2011. Oil from North Dakota's Bakken is a relatively new phenomenon for the East Coast, and the oil is spreading everywhere. As no pipeline yet exists, governments up and down the East Coast are building infrastructure in order to purchase the oil. Until the appearance of Bakken oil on the scene, East Coast refineries had been suffering from the rising price of imported Brent oil, primarily from Nigeria. Political unrest has forced up the price of Brent crude oil, at the same time as the relatively cheap Bakken oil has come on the scene, and the rush is on. The use of Bakken crude oil by East Coast refineries has tripled since 2009 in what industry analysts are calling the U.S. oil boom. There is currently a waiting list of 9 months for oil refineries to get space for crude oil on freight trains like the one that sent a fireball 200 hundred feet into the Lac-Mégantic night this weekend. >/em> from rabble.

posted by chapps at 10:12 AM on July 9, 2013


Lac-Mégantic, before and after.
posted by maudlin at 10:23 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


On Google Maps aerial view you can see the siding near Nantes where the train was parked.
I don't know much about railways but don't sidings like that have switches at either end to allow trains on and off the mainline? Seems to me that closing the switch at the downhill end of the siding would be standard procedure when parking a train, just in case the brakes fail.
Perhaps one more screw-up to add to a growing list of deadly mistakes.
posted by islander at 10:49 AM on July 9, 2013


The CBC article "TSB investigators lay out timeline of Lac-Mégantic disaster" doesn't have much information that we didn't know already, but this line caught my attention:
TSB investigators have not been able to reach the site of the explosions because of continuing safety issues at the scene, but they have been able to determine the position of the controls of the locomotive — which continued travelling out the other side of the town after the derailment — and obtain information from the black box.

"There’s a lot of information that need to be validated," Ross said. There’s a lot of reports out there …. We’re following all the credible leads that we can that will help us get to the bottom of this."

He said some of their specific findings can't be released at this time, because that could compromise the ongoing investigation.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:08 AM on July 9, 2013


Seems to me that closing the switch at the downhill end of the siding would be standard procedure when parking a train

Failure to follow siding switching procedure was the initiator of the Graniteville accident that I mentioned upthread.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:10 AM on July 9, 2013


According to this story, the engineer ran from his hotel room after the accident and moved several cars out of the area:
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways chair Ed Burkhardt said the engineer found a Trackmobile, a vehicle that can pull several cars at a time, and went to the rear of the train.

He hooked up several cars, all the lightweight vehicle for hauling rail cars can pull, and moved them away from the wreckage, Burkhardt said.

He returned once more, pulling a total of nine from the disaster site, where explosions over the course of several hours killed a confirmed 13 people, with almost 50 still missing.
How close was he to the inferno that he could do this? Also:
Burkhardt said the train pulled into Nantes late Friday night. As usual, Harding set the main train brake and a series of hand brakes, secondary devices on each car. He shut down four out of five locomotive units and headed for a hotel in Lac-Mégantic, Burkhardt said. The next engineer was due at some time early Saturday morning to carry on the trip.
So this wasn't even a "Hello, Sam", "Hello, Ralph" situation at a shift change. There was a gap in custody of the train and (apparently) neither Harding nor the replacement engineer were contacted to check the train after the fire.
posted by maudlin at 11:19 AM on July 9, 2013


First person account of the tragedy and escape.

Tragédie de Lac-Mégantic : témoignage de Nicolas Grenier
Histoire d'un gars qui était à moins de 50 mètres de l'explosion..

Very rough translation

Hi. My name is Nicolas Grenier. I originated (born raised) in Lac Megantic and I'm going to make a tossed together video describing my past Friday night in Lac Megantic, at Musi Cafe more precisely. I was there. I was on the outdoor patio, and then as everyone knows a train came very fast, and by the way the train came so fast the bell, the warning signal for trains barely had time to ring. It rang like twice and the train arrived, came at an incredible speed ... I thought it was traveling at 140-160km/h it was totally crazy. There were sparks flying from underneath and we were saying / thinking, hey this makes no sense. What, they aren't stopping?Is the driver sleeping? Come to find out there wasn't any, ha-haaa.

We just had time to discuss that when there was a sort of big explosion behind us. It sounded like ... the same sound as someone letting off a big fireworks. [ makes sound effect]. Then I lifted my head and saw a big fireball above me.

So we jumped over the patio barrier and ran. We ran across the street Frontenac and across the alley behind Frontenac and across the property in front of us, beside the house and we ran for the little street, I don't remember the name, Binette I think, to get closer to the lake, we turned to try and find our friends ... we found one, and just the time I had to turn around and see what was happening. There was fire everywhere ... the full width.

Uhm, the wires ... the houses, all the backside of houses on Veterans boulevard had started to burn. The yards as well. The electrical wires were on fire. All all the wires and it was then that the electrical transformers began jumping, big booms, lots of sparks, had to watch out not be hit by debris.

I left with my friend who had his pick-up. We went to park his truck and it was then I called my parents because they live two corners away from the railway to tell them to leave home. I talked to them and told them not to worry, not to worry about me, just leave, I'm fine.

So after that I said to my friend, "hey I need to take care of my family". To be sure they would leave you know. So I took off running for home up Champlain street and got home and found they weren't there and felt a little relieved. I looked to see if the cat was there. He was gone, my mother had taken him.

So I went and began spraying the house, my house, well my and my parents house, and my neighbours house, hoping it could change anything at all. And I could see the fire that was at the corner of Quebec and Central and ... the wind was pushing the fire toward where I was and ... the heat ... I didn't have a lot of hope, lets just say, that the house would resist, and I was a little discouraged thinking to myself the whole town would be devastated and would be all ghost structures. So that's that.

At a certain point they told me to leave, so I left. I went up a bit of Laval street to where the bank (Caisse Populaire) is. A bit further up I met my parents. We were really happy to see each other. From there we continued on. We spent a fair amount of time at the shopping center parking lot, to see what was going to happen. It was at the shopping center where there was that huge explosion, towards 5 or 5:30 in the morning. It was so high and we could feel the heat and the explosion made it like, it was as clear as mid day.

It is really crazy that I escaped that. It's really luck, luck that I was outside on the patio. I know not everybody had my luck. And that is sad. I would like to address my sympathies and condolences to those who have lost someone, from close or far. I would like to wish to Lac Megantic that it will rebuild quickly, and all the way. To be fully Megantic, with the good taste and pride we have.

So those are my wishes, good courage, don't give up, and take care of yourselves and thank you for listening.
posted by phoque at 11:55 AM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm in Montreal, and I'm wondering if there's anything I can do at this point to help- like charities to help the survivors who lost their property, etc...? I know there's always a rush of blood donations, donated crap, and so forth and I want to help effectively.
posted by Phalene at 12:38 PM on July 9, 2013


An intriguing Gazette article on the mechanics of air brakes and when/how hand brakes should be applied.
A train’s air brakes rely on a system of pressure valves and storage tanks to function, but they should never be used to maintain a train at rest over an extended period of time. ... That’s where the manually engaged “hand brakes” come in. Even if the air brakes on the MMA train had stopped working, explained veteran rail worker Don Beyer, a backup series of hand brakes should have been engaged, and they should have been enough to keep the train stationary. ...

Transport Canada’s rules governing train travel specifically outline this procedure, which Beyer referred to as a “securement test.” Section 112 of the Canadian Railway Operating Rules stipulates that “when equipment is left at any point, a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving. ... Before relying on the retarding force of the hand brakes, whether leaving equipment or riding equipment to rest, the effectiveness of the hand brakes must be tested.

MMA officials confirmed to The Gazette that hand brakes were engaged on all five of the train’s locomotive cars, but it’s unclear how many of the 72 tanker cars, each carrying tens of thousands of litres of crude oil, had their hand brakes activated. It’s also unclear whether the securement test was performed. If it wasn’t, and the hand brakes couldn’t hold the train, then that could explain how it was able to begin rolling toward Lac-Mégantic.

In an interview with The Gazette on Monday, MMA chairman Ed Burkhardt said he believes the locomotive was tampered with.

But according to Rob Smith, national legislative director with Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the possibility of vandals releasing the manual brakes is slim.

“It’s not as easy as it might seem. You would have to know what you’re doing,” he said.
posted by maudlin at 12:39 PM on July 9, 2013


Seems to me that closing the switch at the downhill end of the siding would be standard procedure when parking a train

The end of the siding is a "trailing point" switch. The sheer weight of a train can force open a switch, allowing it to pass through. If you follow the train line into Lac Megantic you find a "facing point" switch, the beginning of a yard, which is likely exactly where the train cars derailed.

If you want to prevent a train from moving, you need to set its brakes or other positive action. Switch placement can be part of that but it's not going to stop a train by itself.

How close was he to the inferno that he could do this?

Pretty sure that he was pulling from the uphill end of the train, segments that weren't derailed. It's not clear that he saved lives doing this, but he may well have risked his own.

I think Transport Canada should be prepared to answer a few pointed questions pretty soon. And I think they should realize that their prototype fucking failed.

I understand what you're saying, but the fact is that the number of people is not a factor if the procedures are insufficient, and even one-person operation can in theory be sufficient if the procedures are robust. You may or may not know that there are remote-control locomotives in operation right now, although almost wholly used for yard operations. But then most rail yards are near populated areas as a matter of course.

You know, I want, in my mind, for there to have been a testosterone-charged confrontation, movie-style, with the firemen and the railroad guy, something like "We need that engine turned off, now!" with the reply "If you turn that engine off a train full of flammable crude is going to roll right into that little town there!" I really feel this is going to be a lot muddier, though. Did someone shrug and say something like "Well, the brakes will probably hold until Ralph gets here at 4am", or what? Did someone do something plumb ignorant through a moment's inattention (as happened in the Ohio runaway on which the Unstoppable movie was based)?

If the locomotive's running engine was the only thing keeping the train from moving, then it was never safe, as evidenced by the fact that it caught fire.

It's still not clear to me that the running engine powering the brakes was the one with the fire (of course, a fire would be more likely on a running engine). There were several locomotives on the train, including (if I'm not mistaken) a group of robots in the middle, not just at the front. But some of this information is not definitive.
posted by dhartung at 12:51 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did someone shrug and say something like "Well, the brakes will probably hold until Ralph gets here at 4am", or what?

I would bet that in all the excitement of the fire, noone remembered to think about brakes at all. The fire's out, the train isn't moving, they've called it in, and then they packed up and left. My understanding is that the train was completely unattended, just like they found it, when the brakes finally did fail and it began rolling towards town.

It looks like the rail company initially tried to blame the fire crew for not alerting the engineer. The fire crew, understandably, presumed the railroad would contact someone. Really, how would they even know where he was spending the night? On the other hand, noone at the scene, including the mysterious railroad employee, seemed concerned about leaving the scene before the engineer arrived.

Here are some breaking tweets from CBC reporter Steve Rukavina, reporting on this afternoon's interview in Chicago:
Steve Rukavina @Steverukavina
Burkhardt: "I think we blew it in this instance. We blew it big time. This is awful. Absolutely awful." #lacmegantic
3:30PM (EST)

Steve Rukavina @Steverukavina
Burkhardt: "I want to make it clear that I'm not blaming the fire department. The fire department acted reasonably." #lacmegantic
3:31PM (EST)
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:26 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Phalene.... Red Cross has a donation page
posted by coust at 1:42 PM on July 9, 2013


The railroad has been trying to steer towards sabotage or terrorism almost since it was reported.

Beginning in the 80s along with the pee test (though no doubt it goes much further back), it became a favorite mechanism for airlines and railroads to blame horrific accidents on illicit drug use (-rarely- alcohol) by dead operators unable to defend themselves. Ed Meese approved.

In this case the operator isn't dead (and wasn't on the train). So I guess firefighters are second in line. I guess the chocks the RR put down to secure the train from rolling were carried away by the wind or by terrorists.
posted by Twang at 1:44 PM on July 9, 2013


I would bet that in all the excitement of the fire, noone remembered to think about brakes at all. The fire's out, the train isn't moving, they've called it in, and then they packed up and left. My understanding is that the train was completely unattended, just like they found it, when the brakes finally did fail and it began rolling towards town.

There is so much WRONG in these sentences. Not that I'm blaming the fire dept. They did their job. They put the fire out. As for the engineer, I suspect he did nothing wrong either. It's the whole notion (as I said already) that a train with as much destructive potential as this one would EVER be left unattended.

What the fuck are our regulators/legislators thinking?
posted by philip-random at 3:24 PM on July 9, 2013


It's the whole notion (as I said already) that a train with as much destructive potential as this one would EVER be left unattended.

I've got news for you. They're left unattended everywhere, all the time. This is why there are brakes.

Really, how would they even know where he was spending the night?

My brother is an engineer with another railroad. He's pretty much constantly on call except when on a designated/required break. The railroad has standing contracts with taxi companies and motels, because the railroad pays for those (they will pick you up in the middle of nowhere and schlep you across half the county if need be). They'll know where to reach him.

I would bet that in all the excitement of the fire, noone remembered to think about brakes at all.

My point is that, much as with aircraft, it's almost inconceivable to me that would happen. There should be a cascade of responsibility rather than a cascade of errors. Fire's over -- OK, railroad's back in charge. What's next? Gotta be a checklist, even if most of the guys just instinctively know what needs to be done, the way the engineer knew he had to pull whatever he could of the train out of the fire. There are dispatchers and shift supervisors who were on duty and must have known there was a problem. What I want to know is how that hand-off failed.
posted by dhartung at 6:28 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Your train? You're at fault.

Sabotage? Why aren't you prepared for it?

They'll spend millions on the blame game and excuses why they're not responsible. How much on prevention--two bits?
posted by BlueHorse at 7:13 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The railroad has standing contracts with taxi companies and motels, because the railroad pays for those (they will pick you up in the middle of nowhere and schlep you across half the county if need be). They'll know where to reach him.

I think the question was how would the fire department have known where to find him, not the railroad.
posted by hoyland at 7:33 PM on July 9, 2013


Obviously a terrible disaster, and a tragic loss of life. But here's a unique story.

"Not every day that a brevet rolls into a disaster zone..." Randonneur ride report on the Lac Mégantic 600 km Brevet.
posted by ecco at 9:33 PM on July 9, 2013


A few reports have mentioned that the cars were uncoupled from the locomotives. Is this common train-parking practice? If not, could this happen during the runaway? One BBC report noted that a/the locomotive(s) was found a kilometer away from the derailment site.
posted by maggieb at 9:35 PM on July 9, 2013


hoyland, articles have repeatedly noted that at least one "representative from MMA" was on scene at the fire, apparently someone other than the engineer, e.g.

"The train started to roll without anybody on board, no control after the departure of the firemen and the representative from MMA," Ross said.

I can't imagine it's within the fire department's protocols to just show up, fight a fire, and leave, regardless of what the railroad might do. And it wasn't the fire department that had responsibility for the train, so it was definitely the railroad that had to determine whether the train was safe and who was needed to do that. As has been said above, though, it's still not clear what authority the rep(s) in the field had, and I'm sure there had to have been some discussion or decision made between whoever was on site and the dispatch/management. What was said and what was done are all going to be part of the investigation.

maggieb, this BBC report indicates that the locomotives still had their brakes set. It could be that the rolling weight of the train against the combined resistance of the engines simply broke the coupling. This may have happened as the coupling was stressed at a particular location such as the points or a curve. I'm also reading that while under nominal conditions a coupler is extremely strong, under conditions with slack and movement it is more susceptible to losing a "knuckle".
posted by dhartung at 1:46 AM on July 10, 2013


Man, that Ed Burkhardt sounds like a class-A dick.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:03 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's the whole notion (as I said already) that a train with as much destructive potential as this one would EVER be left unattended.

I've got news for you. They're left unattended everywhere, all the time. This is why there are brakes.


Except shutting down all the locomotives can also shut down all the brakes. I believe that's the crux of what has been said here. I'm not saying it doesn't happen all the time. I'm saying, this practice is careless to the point of criminal, a disaster that was waiting to happen. All the high end paranoia in this culture about terrrrists ... and yet we leave unattended time bombs on wheels aimed at the heart of peoples' communities.

Man, that Ed Burkhardt sounds like a class-A dick.

Maybe, but this guy (MMA's President + CEO) certainly came across as human last night on CBC Newsworld, even using the responsibility word more than once. Or he's one of the world's great actors.

I'm guessing that what will come from this is that nobody broke any big rules or regulations, but that due to a pile of factors (many of them mercenary) rail safety has been allowed to slide to what has amounted to a criminal level.
posted by philip-random at 8:21 AM on July 10, 2013


Mr. Burkhardt Goes to Lac-Mégantic:
Mr. Burkhardt said he no longer believes his train was sabotaged and denied casting blame on local firefighters.

He said the track employee who went to the site of a fire on a locomotive was not aware of the consequences of turning the engine off.

He also said handbrakes were set on the locomotive, based on an initial inspection by the company. He said the local conductor set other brakes -- on tank cars -- ... but he added the company has not been able to verify that.

He said it's hard to imagine handbrakes were applied on the train's tank cars. "As a matter of fact, I'll say they weren't," Mr. Burkhardt said.

Asked if he thinks an employee removed the brakes, he said he thinks they "failed to set the brakes."

The engineer who was last driving the train has been suspended, Mr. Burkhardt said, and is “under police control,” he said, adding that he is not in jail.
posted by maudlin at 11:05 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, it looks like they're going to sacrifice the engineer:
1:54 PM
TwitterSteve Rukavina @Steverukavina
Burkhardt: engineer has been suspended without pay and I don't think he'll be back working with us again #lacmegantic

1:58 PM
TwitterSteve Rukavina @Steverukavina
Burkhardt: our engineer says he set 11 handbrakes; we don't believe that's true #LacMegantic
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:49 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mr. Burkhardt said he no longer believes his train was sabotaged and denied casting blame on local firefighters.

That's sure what it sounded like to me when I first heard him on the CBC.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:10 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


So Burkhardt is making all sorts of pronouncements about what did or did not happen and who did or did not do it. I'm sure the investigators just love him. And the PR people.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:05 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


And his poor assistant:

Mr. Burkhardt was eventually led away by police, who said he was not under arrest but had agreed to talk with investigators.

A woman who identified herself as Mr. Burkhardt's assistant attempted to cross police lines to reach her boss said, "I need to tell him that under advice of his lawyer he can't answer any questions from police."

posted by bleep at 4:01 PM on July 10, 2013


the guy's in shock.
posted by philip-random at 4:30 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


What I find really disconcerting is his accent: he sounds like Jimmy Stewart, or maybe a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Stuart McLean.
posted by maudlin at 4:37 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having a backup engineer seems so goddamn sensible.

If Canadian safety standards are being rewritten by lobbyists to increase industry profit margins, then we need to have a nation-wide discussion and somebody in the government needs to go to jail.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:41 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some details about Canadian and American regulations re one person crews here:
Canadian regulators grant railways the right to use one-man crews if they prove that one person can handle all the required operating tasks on a train. However, such permission is rare.

“Our rules and regulations do not stipulate one, two or three members on a crew,” Transport Canada’s director general of rail safety, Luc Bourdon, told reporters this week.

“In the case of one-man operation, a railway will have to provide to Transport Canada the conditions by which they will respect in order to do it safely. And if it’s according to our regulatory regime, we’ve got no issues with that. And we’re monitoring that on a regular basis,” he said. ...

Similar rules apply in the United States, where railways does not have any explicit rules banning one-man crews, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration. “However, in order to fully comply with existing FRA regulations, the vast majority of U.S. rail companies do not use one-person crews,” Kevin Thompson, a FRA associate administrator, said in a statement.

It is possible, although very unusual, to meet the regulations and have a one-man crew, the FRA said. Operators who qualify are likely making really short trips on small railways. The FRA does not keep statistics on how many one-man crews are operating.
posted by maudlin at 7:59 PM on July 10, 2013


"Operators who qualify are likely making really short trips on small railways."
Whether it's a really short trip on a small railway or a really long trip on a big railway, they're still carrying highly flammable and explosive (thanks to the addition of hydrocarbon condensates to make it easier to pump) cargoes in rail tankers not built for the purpose. And "really small" railways are less likely to have the resources and expertise to handle hazardous materials.
I wonder where the crude oil in this case originated and where it was headed. If they are trying to cobble together a network of "really small" railways in order to skirt regulations while operating at the lowest possible cost then every community with a rail line is at risk.
posted by islander at 10:40 PM on July 10, 2013


islander, I don't think it's that dark a scenario -- the train was almost certainly hauled to the MMA transfer by Canadian Pacific (which has two-person crews, an engineer and a conductor).

The crude originated, according to several sources, in North Dakota. It was headed for an Irving oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick, via a fairly geographically direct route (thanks to NAFTA, cross-border transport is actually less of a problem than getting through the lower Appalachians, I gather).

I'm sure the investigators just love him. And the PR people.

Yep. Somebody hasn't had crisis management training.

Except shutting down all the locomotives can also shut down all the brakes.

If it's a train, with a locomotive. If it's just a bunch of cars, it's a bunch of cars with their hand brakes set. I know this may seem astounding to you, but it's pretty much an unchanged practice forever.

All the high end paranoia in this culture about terrrrists ... and yet we leave unattended time bombs on wheels aimed at the heart of peoples' communities.

I'll take your point about overreaction to a rare event, but this sort of thing is also a pretty rare event. I'm sure it will lead to some significant safety improvements, but that's unlikely to be "all train cars unable to move by accident, ever". And even if it mandates new equipment and new procedures, that's not going to be in place overnight -- it would probably take decades to replace all the existing tankers with double-hulled designs, for example.

I think there is likely to be more emphasis in urban planning on keeping development further back from train lines, but it's still probably going to allow commercial uses like the Musi-Cafe to be grandfathered in. The key problem is that, especially in the US, railroads are a federalized industry and have rights-of-way that can be acquired by eminent domain but are often simply in the same place as they were decades before the town grew up around them. The railroads are a bit understandably sensitive about being responsible for something they can't control.
posted by dhartung at 3:23 AM on July 11, 2013


Man, that Ed Burkhardt sounds like a class-A dick.

Even watching the CBC footage, he does come off like a class-A dick, but I have to give him points for bravery, for actually showing up and taking a barrage of unfiltered questions in an angry town. 99.9999% of all CEOs everywhere wouldn't have bothered to show up after the death and destruction they cause. If this happened in the United States — like British Petroleum-scale devastation — I'd have expected a carefully-worded form letter expressing deep concern and sympathy, with the scumbag lawyers and PR flunkies bused in to do the rest of the damage control.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:25 AM on July 11, 2013


Dhartung, you're in the train business; is manually setting a hand brake a physical ordeal or does it take a very long time? Why does it take regulation to force the minimum number to be set?

I've been reading descriptions about other runaway incidents, which by definition always involve brake failures of some kind. The law mandates a minimum number of handbrakes to be set in each circumstance, but in some cases that wasn't enough because the cars had been overloaded, or the brakes had been poorly maintained, and investigators later estimated that 2x or 3x the legal minimum would have been necessary to prevent an accident.

So I wonder, why isn't it normal practice just to set the brakes on every car when securing a train? Is it a matter of just throwing a heavy lever on every car, or do you have to ratchet each one by hand? In this case, the engineer claims to have set 11 handbrakes; would it have taken him hours to set them on all 73 cars? Estimating 50 feet per car, that's over a 1km walk down the train, but that's only a fifteen minute walk each way, not including the time spent setting the brakes.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:40 AM on July 11, 2013


Cbc has a story today on recent train derailments in Canada, and the reports on why they happened. Brakes come up as a frequent issue.
posted by chapps at 8:22 AM on July 11, 2013


I'm sure it will lead to some significant safety improvements, but that's unlikely to be "all train cars unable to move by accident, ever".

how about we start with the ones loaded with dangerous and/or explosive materials, with the thin-hulled ones being the highest priority.

It seems to me that the rail biz in North America has been playing a long odds game of Russian Roulette for a long time now, particularly with some of the deregulation that's been going on. And now, horrifically, all those long odds have lined up. Is it really all the engineer's fault even if he did do it out of carelessness, laziness? I think not. He's a human being. Human beings mess up. Where's the redundancy?

I lived with a guy years back (early 1980s) who worked on the trains. I remember being shocked when he told me that the crew, even for a big freight train, was three (maybe four people). But then, as he put it, once the train's rolling there's very little to do ... unless something goes wrong.
posted by philip-random at 8:46 AM on July 11, 2013


One of my friends cousins is among the missing. Yesterday police visiting the family with a public notary to begin the paper work to issue a death certificate ... even though no remains have been found yet. The prognosis of finding anything ... while there is always uncertainty, hope was apparently rather muted.
posted by phoque at 1:38 PM on July 11, 2013


No trains, no Keystone

Few people in Canada seem to fully appreciate what the report actually says about the magnitude of projected oil sands shipments by rail, but its figures are astonishing. Shipping the amount of oil sands product that would otherwise be carried by Keystone XL would require 13 trains of 100 cars a day. The loading facilities for these trains would cover more than 14 square kilometres. By extrapolation, shipping the projected growth by 2030 in oil sands production – about three million barrels of extra output daily – entirely by rail would require more than 50 trains a day, with loading facilities covering more than 60 square kilometres.

Lac-Mégantic will make such enormous rail shipment of oil products far less acceptable to the public in both Canada and the United States.


- Thomas Homer-Dixon (from Victoria, BC!)
posted by KokuRyu at 4:01 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


They reported last night that Lac-Mégantic's Library and Archives were destroyed in the explosion. Documentation and irreplaceable negatives detailing the town's history back to the 1870s were lost.
posted by ceribus peribus at 9:04 AM on July 12, 2013


Faces of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:27 PM on July 12, 2013


Dhartung, you're in the train business;

No, I'm not, just a railfan from youth; my brother is a locomotive engineer, though.

So I wonder, why isn't it normal practice just to set the brakes on every car when securing a train?

Well, some trains are huge, and crews haven't been (usually) more than 2-3 guys for a generation. The usual practice, as I understand it, is setting enough brakes until the train isn't going to move, which is to some degree an art and to another degree just as simple a matter as a car driver deciding whether to leave it in park or set the parking brake too.

runaway incidents, which by definition always involve brake failures

Not precisely. Runaways aren't always parked when they get loose.

how about we start with the ones loaded with dangerous and/or explosive materials, with the thin-hulled ones being the highest priority.

Hey, look, I agree with you here. It's long overdue to upgrade safety on the tankers for hazardous cargo. You can see a shot of one of the Lac Megantic cars with a rail stove right through like it was butter.

There also appears to have been an enormous increase in just a few years of crude oil shipments without any attendant increase in safety improvements, regulation, or much care. But then railroads used to ship a lot of oil back in the day before the continent-wide pipelines were built, so there's a sense that they already knew how to handle this. But you also have to recognize that anything we do is going to take years and years to implement. Railroads are an enormous pile of legacy infrastructure and, unfortunately, a lot of populated areas are close at hand (I'm three blocks from one myself).

Where's the redundancy?

Well, the redundancy has been there in hand brakes + air brakes, and what we have is a situation where TWO systems failed, for somewhat different reasons. I'm not sure what the next level might be, though I can imagine some sort of self-charging independent braking system on each car that's then controlled digitally (but then you start to get into areas where such a system could cause safety problems if not used properly or activating on false positives, etc.).

Railroads have long used other physical safety features such as derails and bumpers. But those work better for consists (groups of cars, considered apart from engines) that aren't going to be moving for a while and aren't practical or safe on a main line, which is where this train was.

It might have helped if there were a fully electronic dispatch system on the line, but only to the extent of perhaps sounding a warning, and it's not clear how much time there would have been for one.
posted by dhartung at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's just weird to me that it's handbrakes and air pressure. Solenoids are simple, cheap tech well suited to engaging a mechanical brake and plenty are designed to protect from electrical failures. Set all the brakes at once, and if a few fail there's enough still active to hold it, and between warning lights and normal maintenance the failed brakes would be caught pretty quickly. Hydraulic systems are expensive and a pain, and hand brakes make operator oversight inevitable.
posted by jason_steakums at 4:29 PM on July 12, 2013


Well, the redundancy has been there in hand brakes + air brakes, and what we have is a situation where TWO systems failed, for somewhat different reasons. I'm not sure what the next level might be, though I can imagine some sort of self-charging independent braking system on each car that's then controlled digitally (but then you start to get into areas where such a system could cause safety problems if not used properly or activating on false positives, etc.).

I was imagining the redundancy would be human. When a train is acknowledged to have a hazardous load (or must be left in a potentially hazardous location), there must always be a conscious, competent human being present ... just in case.

Again, leaving that train unattended wasn't like leaving a primed bomb unattended, it was a primed bomb.
posted by philip-random at 4:50 PM on July 12, 2013


My mistake, dhartung, sorry about that.

Burkhardt, speaking to Maclean's magazine, has been maintaining his brand of clumsy self-interested spin:
"The words corporate responsibility are used from time to time but what I think you generally find is that when mistakes are made...then it's people that did it."

"A corporation is a bank account in a lock box at the post office. It doesn't do things. People do things."
Translation: corporations can only collect profits, not actually be responsible for things. When mistakes happen, it can always be blamed on some unempowered worker instead of the corporation.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:22 PM on July 12, 2013


jason_steakums, this technology was standardized across North America in the 1930s. Now on the one hand that means, wow, before solenoids, before much of modern electronics, but on he other hand, that means utterly proven and reliable technology.

There are something like 1.5 million train cars in North America. Right now, you can transfer a train car of any type from any railroad to any other and reach any point on the continent that is open to rail service. So any upgrade must consider the difficulty of retrofitting the entire rolling stock of North America (although there is much less cross-border traffic with Mexico).

So whatever system you add to rail traffic is going to have to be backwards-compatible with the existing one for some time.

A key problem with rail braking is that the default setting is "off" (unlike truck brakes which are "on"), because a single braked car can result in the derailment of an entire train. Whatever you add is going to have to behave similarly.

You'll have to decide whether you're individually powering each car with this electrical braking system, or taking power through the existing umbilical with the pneumatic brake system and drawing it ultimately from the engines. You'll want the engines to have a reliable engine-to-car connection that won't fail during transport and won't misbehave under critical operating conditions, which include some very wrenching car-to-car movements both impact and torsion. Obviously, it has to be highly weather-resistant.

I'm not saying there isn't room for improvement, or that 21st century tech has no place in the rail infrastructure, but I do want you to realize this is most emphatically not a "just do this simple fix" sort of thing. Right now, a non-working air brake is mostly a matter of making the connection and it works. Some sort of electronic system would essentially beg for debugging, frequently in the worst weather conditions. Will whole trains be held up because you need to upgrade the firmware? Reboot the localized or network controller? Reallocate IP addresses? This is the scope of what a robust system would demand.

There are lots of advances found in, for example, high-speed rail. It's an exciting time for rail transport. But freight rail is stuck with a huge amount of "legacy" installed hardware.

I was imagining the redundancy would be human. When a train is acknowledged to have a hazardous load (or must be left in a potentially hazardous location), there must always be a conscious, competent human being present ... just in case.

I'm really not sure that you realize the scope here, either. A whole human being is pretty damned expensive. How many parked cars demand one? 100? 50? 1? How well trained is this person? Obviously they would have to be at least a conductor if not an engineer (and railroads have constant problems keeping those slots filled). I think you could easily envision this as a way to make rail transport of hazardous materials simply impossible, but then you have to consider that you're shunting that someplace else that might be even more dangerous, like the highways.

In any case, the redundancy that I'm saying should have been there was human, it was more procedural than warm body-al.

Again, leaving that train unattended wasn't like leaving a primed bomb unattended, it was a primed bomb.

Essentially a point made, post 9/11, about trains-as-terrorism. But it really hasn't happened. I just think you need to adjust your thinking from never again, which is for a lot of reasons unsustainable economically, and focus on harm reduction and incident prevention. Another way to look at this is demand reduction. One of the features of this accident is a huge increase in domestic oil production to meet demand, partly as a result of the easing of the recession.

But no matter what, train tracks are largely not going to be moving, and train technology may be tweaked, but is not going to see dramatic changes without an investment that right now would come from who knows where.

ceribus: Yeah, that guy is really digging his own PR grave. Whatever report is issued by the Canadian NTSB equivalent is going to look at the whole situation and may well mandate changes to the railroad's procedures, or to all railroads' procedures.

But the railroad and/or holding company will just have to accept things like a settlement and payout here, depending on Canadian law regarding liability. I don't think his yammering is going to change that much.
posted by dhartung at 4:25 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


How well trained is this person? Obviously they would have to be at least a conductor if not an engineer (and railroads have constant problems keeping those slots filled).

And yet, thirty years ago (the last time I paid any attention to how the rail biz worked), the standard crew was three (engineer, conductor, other guy -- brakeman?). Certainly that's how it was in British Columbia. Or maybe it was two, just three in certain circumstances (ie: routes that were prone to derailments etc).

My roommate at the time was the third guy. He was young, barely out of high school, and yet making good money for what amounted to a whole lot of not much. Other than few duties in the stations (stopping and starting etc), it was mostly just sitting around ... unless something happened. That guy did a lot of reading.

And I do understand the cost of things, even then. I was a cab driver at the time, and the biggest fare I ever had involved driving a fresh crew of four guys a hundred plus miles to a derailment. And then I drove the guys initially working the derailment home. That was a two hundred plus dollar fare (in 1981 dollars). Yet cheaper than keeping those guys on the clock any longer ... with double-triple overtime kicking in.

So I can fully understand the why of the industry moving toward fewer humans on the payroll.

Except then something like this happens.

I just think you need to adjust your thinking from never again, which is for a lot of reasons unsustainable economically, and focus on harm reduction and incident prevention.

There is no perfect anything. But justifying what happened a week ago as an economic inevitability just feels like all kinds of wrong. How many more pennies would my last grocery bill have been in order to cover the cost of a second competent crew member on not ALL trains, but all trains hauling CATASTROPHICALLY DANGEROUS cargo?
posted by philip-random at 8:48 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The National Post has produced a comprehensive article (with massive infographic - click to enlarge) summarizing public knowledge to date.

New to me (from the infographic):

- The cab driver who picked up Harding, the engineer, says that the locomotive was smoking more than usual and oil droplets fell on his car. When questioned about the extra smoke, Harding said that he was following company directives.
- The train was parked on the main line because another train was already in the siding.

And from the article: "(A TSB report into a runaway freight train at Dorée, Que., in 2011 found that poor maintenance – such as a lack of lubrication or improper adjustment of components– can result in hand brakes not engaging properly even if the operator thinks he has applied them.)"

So it's possible that Harding did apply the brakes and that they appeared to be functioning. Of course, if that is what happened, the brake failure should have been apparent if he had tested them by running the locomotive.
posted by maudlin at 10:53 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


(BTW, the Post does produce a variety of interesting infographics. Worth a look.)
posted by maudlin at 10:54 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the National Post link, maudlin. I don't often agree with their political or economic opinions but the NatPo apparently still employs some competent journalists.
posted by islander at 11:24 PM on July 13, 2013


the standard crew was three

On _operating_ trains. You're suggesting posting someone at groups of parked train cars. I just don't see that happening, ever.

Now, blocking the implementation of one person crews -- that's more pertinent here. Clearly the engineer was quitting and parking the train because he had to get sleep and it may well be that he ignored regulations and will be the fall guy from the railroad's perspective, but I'm still confident that the safety review will come down hard on the railroad for any organizational lapses, such as maintenance on the locomotive that allowed it to have a fire.

Actually determining whether the brakes were set properly is going to be a point of contention and may be quite difficult.

Anyway, I've been looking at the next-generation safety technology called Positive Train Control, which is partially through a period running up against a 2015 implementation deadline (in the US) that is likely to be badly blown -- and it's not clear whether it will really work, whether the technology investment will have been worth it, and how many accidents it will prevent. In point of fact I'm not sure it could have prevented this one at all. Briefly, the system is supposed to allow a central dispatch location to tell whether a train is making an unauthorized movement, such as from a siding to a main line against a light, or overspeed. In this situation, I think that would have been too late -- after the train starts moving without anyone on board there's not much they can do. A system with a remote restart and/or monitoring/reporting of air brake pressure would be much more likely to have helped but those don't seem to be in this generation of incoming technology, and it's not clear that an engine turned off after a fire would be of any use in communicating the necessary data (of course, ideally the multiple engines would all be communicating individually). But the goal would have to be having dispatchers understand there's a parked train that has no running engine and is gradually losing brake pressure, which would have allowed them time to intervene.

But justifying what happened a week ago as an economic inevitability just feels like all kinds of wrong.

Look, economics is always going to be intertwined with safety. We could prevent all air crashes by grounding all airplanes, forever, but that's not going to happen. Fundamentally airplanes are metal tubes that are held up in the sky by physics. Sometimes they can fall down and people get killed. Similarly trains are going to be parked on slopes that run somewhere people can be hurt if they roll downhill. Let me use another example: the Space Shuttle. NASA decided against an escape system for the orbiters, e.g. something that could blow the crew cabin component away from the rest of the vehicle so it could land by parachute (conceivably a system which could have saved the crew of Challenger), because it would be very costly, only have a few scenarios in which it worked and saved lives, and have a high potential for creating new risks of its own, e.g. accidental activation during launch or space flight. Not every life-saving technology is worth it just because in certain cases it would, potentially, save lives.

What I want is for this incident to be analyzed in both technological and human factors senses, so that we understand what went wrong and make sure that gets fixed. I'm really not convinced that the existing system of brakes and technological redundancy is, by itself, at all the problem. I feel there is plenty of room for human and procedural error here that is going to point to improvements (or enforcement against laxity) which will impact railroads and crews, yet not really cry out for a massive investment of untried technology to cover a few edge cases (the edge cases are the ones where there weren't such obvious mistakes & the technology was more clearly at fault).

To be sure, though, I think the double-hull rule should be in place for all newly constructed tankers.

One of the things I'm curious about is how far liability extends to the shipper of the crude. Who owned it, who paid for it (easily multiple parties), who has insurance on it. Depending on these questions may be how such shipments are handled in the future. The railroads are only going to listen to regulators or their customers, and the latter are much more powerful.
posted by dhartung at 1:14 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]



On _operating_ trains. You're suggesting posting someone at groups of parked train cars. I just don't see that happening, ever.


if this was a military situation, with an ammunition dump, trust that someone competent (with a full grasp of safety measures etc) would be monitoring it AT ALL TIMES. How is a train loaded with flammable, explosive cargo different than this? It's arguably far more dangerous. It's an ammunition dump on wheels.

I'm not saying that this someone would have to be awake at all times, walking the perimeter etc. But they would need to be on the scene, capable of being alerted (by some kind of alarm system?) should anything anomalous occur. In the case of Lac-Mégantic, the guy would've been around to observe the fire department doing its thing, then once they were done, running down the safety list of things to double-check (ie: have all the locomotives been turned off?)

Hindsight's 20-20 and all that, but I'm a long way from being expert (or even trained) at any of this kind of thing. It just makes sense.
posted by philip-random at 10:06 AM on July 14, 2013


if this was a military situation, with an ammunition dump, trust that someone competent (with a full grasp of safety measures etc) would be monitoring it AT ALL TIMES. How is a train loaded with flammable, explosive cargo different than this? It's arguably far more dangerous. It's an ammunition dump on wheels.

It really seems like the kind of thing that there should be military money spent on. How is the safety and security of fuel trains not a top priority for Homeland Security in the US considering how many populated areas they go through and the fact that their entire route is full of critical infrastructure?
posted by jason_steakums at 11:56 PM on July 14, 2013


[The corporation] ...doesn't do things. People do things."

But the railroad and/or holding company will just have to accept things like a settlement and payout here, depending on Canadian law regarding liability.

This kind of stuff makes me want to go berserk and stab CEOs with sharp pointy objects.

The shit will roll downhill, and some poor shmuck will have his job taken away, and most likely his life ruined, as fingers will always point his way as the cause of multiple deaths, yet the corporate 'person' rolls merrily along with no penalty.

A settlement and payout--big whoop. Cost of business. A smack on the wrist will impress no one.

The biggest mistake ever made was to enable corporate personhood--all the rights and privileges and no responsibility.

Burkhardt: engineer has been suspended without pay and I don't think he'll be back working with us again

I'll bet the guy was following standard procedure as handed down from corporate headquarters. Whether it was his fault or not, no pay says they intend it to be his fault even before investigation.

Man, that Ed Burkhardt sounds like a class-A dick.

People died and the community was decimated, and this oaf's primary response is to point fingers. My only hope is that his first responses were so asinine that he'll get his comeuppance after the dust settles. He did a shitty job with PR.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:56 PM on July 15, 2013


Why are Canada's trains vulnerable? Good old capitalist cost-cutting.
posted by adamvasco at 8:57 AM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Opinion: As a former rail engineer, I need to speak out

In my view, what happened in Lac-Mégantic is linked to the continent-wide, 30-year erosion of rules, procedures, equipment and infrastructure in the rail industry, and a culture of corporate acquisition by non-railroad interests that has led to deferred maintenance and deep cost cutting.
posted by dhartung at 11:20 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


dhartung - I couldn't agree with you more ... and no doubt, you're way more informed on the issue than I. It seems that this huge industry has been allowed to slip beneath the regulatory radar to an absurd (and ultimately tragic) degree. And now it suddenly stands as a bright shining (stinking) beacon as to where incremental greed-driven deregulation gets you.

I wonder what Ayn Rand would have to say ...
posted by philip-random at 8:53 AM on July 19, 2013


I wonder what Ayn Rand would have to say ...

"Worth it!"
posted by jason_steakums at 9:56 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Lac-Mégantic investigators seek urgent rail safety review
TSB urges review of rules surrounding securing of cars, dangerous goods


Transport Canada late Friday confirmed it does not approve or give any specific guidance to Canada's rail companies on how many brakes must be applied for parked freight trains....

This admission flies in the face of assertions made earlier this week by Transport Canada after repeated questioning by CBC News about the working of Rule 112 contained in the CROR's (Canadian Railway Operating Rules), which demands railways ensure “sufficient” numbers of brakes be applied to secure a train....

On Friday afternoon, the agency appeared to retreat from this position acknowledging that the regulator does not approve company policies and simply trusts companies to employ their own best practices to keep parked trains from running away....

[The TSB is also] "asking Transport Canada to review all railway operating procedures to ensure that trains carrying dangerous goods are not left unattended on the main track"....

After a collision between two trains, one unattended, in B.C. in 2002, the TSB alerted Transport Canada to the fact that railway instructions don't always require that the doors and windows of locomotives be locked and secured.

Transport Canada determined that stricter regulations surrounding the securing of locomotives weren't warranted.

The TSB investigation in Lac-Mégantic found that MM&A plan for unmanned trains was to leave them on the main track with an unlocked cab beside a public highway where it could have been accessed.

posted by dhartung at 4:49 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Canada toughens train rules after deadly derailment

Canadian transportation authorities banned one-man crews for trains with dangerous goods Tuesday, responding to calls for tougher regulations after an oil train derailment in Quebec killed 47 people.

Transport Canada also said trains with dangerous goods will not be allowed to be left unattended on a main track. Hand brakes must be applied to trains left one hour or more.


Riskiest Trains Targeted by Canada Rule for 2-Person Crew

MPs wait on Lac-Mégantic details before rail safety study

Wrongful-death lawsuit launched in U.S. court over Quebec rail disaster
posted by dhartung at 6:49 PM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Lac-Mégantic investigation: SQ raids MMA offices in Farnham
MONTREAL – Police raided the offices of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company in Farnham on Thursday, a few hours’ drive from Lac-Mégantic, where one of the company’s trains derailed and exploded on July 6.

A Sûreté du Québec spokesperson would only say that the 15 officers executing the search warrant were looking for “different types” of evidence as part of their criminal investigation into the company’s role in the explosion, which killed 47 people and levelled most of the small town’s centre.

Evidence gathered on Thursday may be used to support eventual charges of criminal negligence, SQ spokesperson Michel Forget said.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:43 PM on July 25, 2013


An unstoppable oil leak is flowing in Alberta
posted by homunculus at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2013


Barack Obama expresses reservations about Keystone XL pipeline project: Comments give hope to environmental campaigners looking for signs president will not approve controversial tar sands project
posted by homunculus at 10:50 AM on July 28, 2013


MM&A files for bankruptcy
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:59 PM on August 7, 2013


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