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The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

Canadian BusinessQuebec

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil when they derailed in downtown Lac Megantic, Que., on July 6, 2013. Photo by Paul Chiasson.

In recent years, some residents of Lac Megantic have repeatedly put forward the view that the operation of the former CPR mainline linking Montreal with St. John New Brunswick through the center of the town is unsafe.

Until July 6 of this year, it would appear that this view was mistaken, at least in the eyes of the business and political communities. Both chose to dismiss the claim as ill informed.

It is an instructive and revealing conclusion as one of capitalism’s more remarkable achievements in the 20th century has been in the field of education. The objective was not to teach us to read and write. This was conveniently left, in the main, to the public sector. Rather, capital’s task was to persuade us to believe and trust in the “appearances” of the business community’s choosing and creation. If the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMAR) deemed the operation of the line through the town to be safe, surely it must be so. There is certainly no record of the Conservative Member of Parliament for the region disagreeing and taking the “complaints” of local residents seriously.

This venture of capital into the field of education should be self-evident to those who choose to look back and appreciate history with a reasonable measure of objectivity. In the western world, capitalism rapidly met and satisfied, in an uneven fashion, the “natural demands” of men and women in the market place of which Adam Smith (1776) wrote so critically. The advent of mass production as a means of producing more goods and services at prices more and more consumers could afford required manufacturers and others to ‘create” demand, to persuade consumers to purchase goods and service beyond the necessities of life.

The method developed for doing so was not the classroom but the mass media. Manufacturers, men and women of commerce and gamblers (i.e. finance capital) harnessed social scientists, artists of one description or another and hustlers (i.e. sales men and women) to discover what we might be persuaded to “want”, package the answer, and flog the product to appreciative consumers. Here, many, but not all journalists and editors, ever conscious of the sensibilities of those who own and control the mass media, deserve a measure of credit.

What does this have to do with the July 6th rail disaster at Lac Megantic? Everything! Oil, it is said by the industry that discovers, extracts, refines and sells it, is a necessary commodity. Moreover, the public is assured by transportation companies that oil, is a SAFE commodity to transport over vast distances. Finally, the current Federal Government insists, time and again, that the present oil and transportation industries are OVER-REGULATED. Indeed, they have already taken concrete steps to free both industries from what they DEFINE as UNNECESSARY government oversight and control. To be charitable, Mr. Harper’s definition of “necessity” can be said to be frugal.

Such, in the eyes of business and government, was the appearance of things when an unmanned, MMAR, dangerous goods freight train derailed and exploded in the center of the Town of Lac Megantic in the early morning of July 6th. The incident shattered an “appearance” and claim that flattered and served the interests of those who created them. Perhaps it is this very fact that has deepened the national shock and anger over the unnecessary loss of life and the total destruction of the community’s core. After all, the cultivated “appearance of things” would have us believe that this kind of tragedy was unlikely to arise.

Consider what has been reported concerning the events and aftermath of July 6th.

At 23:00 hrs on July 5th, a MMAR freight train, made up of 72 tankers carrying crude oil and coupled to five locomotive units, pulls into Nantes, Quebec. It is transporting crude oil from the Brakken oil field in North Dakota and is enroute to the Irving Oil Refinery in St. John. The train is being operated by a crew of one — a locomotive engineer.

By 23:25 hrs, the engineer has parked and secured the train on the mainline, having put the hand brakes on the five locomotive engines and ten tanker cars. One engine is left running. The locomotive engineer leaves the train unattended and heads for a hotel in Lac Megantic, some 10 kms. to the southeast.

Normally, an unattended train would be parked on a siding with a derail device attached to the track. If, for whatever reason, the train began to move, the first several cars would be derailed, bringing movement to a stop. In the case of Nantes, the Company chose to use the siding for parking rolling stock, to be assigned to service the industrial park in Lac Megantic; a Company practice in common use. Hence, the locomotive engineer was forced to park a dangerous goods train on the mainline. (25/7/13)

At 23:30 hrs, a citizen of Nantes who resides in a house across from the railway tracks, sees sparks and a large noxious cloud arising from the chimney of one of the locomotives. A 911 call is made. The Nantes volunteer fire department responds and contacts a railway dispatcher at Farnham. The Railway Company sends a track repair worker to the scene. The trackman has no experience in the operation of a diesel locomotive.The fire department volunteers shut down the engine and extinguish the fire. In an interview later on CBC National TV news, the Chief of the Fire Department says the fire fighters followed the “Company protocol” in doing so.

By midnight, the fire fighters retire from scene of the fire and the railway worker phones the dispatcher at Farnham. According to the Company, the worker then went home. The train was left, unattended.

It is estimated that the train begins to move down a 1.2% grade in the direction of Lac Megantic at 00:56 hrs on July 6th. By 01:24 hrs, the train enters Lac Megantic at an estimated speed of 101 kph. As it goes through the town, the tanker cars derail and the five locomotive engines break away, finally coming to rest on the southwest side of the town. The derailed tanker cars in the middle of the town center explode. (10/7/13)

The resulting fire flattens and destroys the entire residential and commercial core of the town. The library, town archives and post office, along with business premises, shops and a number of residences are gone. As many as 1,200 of the 6,000 residents are forced to leave their homes. At least forty-seven lives are lost. Factories in the town’s industrial park are shut down, including Tafisa, North America’s largest producer of particleboard and a principal supplier of wood to IKEA.(20/7/13) Oil and chemical residue from the train wreck has entered the Chaudiere River and the scenic lake after which the town is named. The spillage is estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 litres of oil. The town’s sewer system is also infested, causing small explosions in residential neighborhoods. The water purification plant is shut down in order to empty and flush the town’s resevoirs.The long term effect of oil pollution on the town and regional environment is yet to be determined. (LP 20/7/13)

It may be tempting for some to refer to this disaster as an accident; that is “an event without any apparent cause” if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted. It is nothing of the kind. It is a direct consequence of human purpose and action. It is about the political economy we either chose to live in or were born to.

To the extent that any of us reflect upon the nature of capitalism, we tend to presume that it is about the pursuit of profit.This is but a partial truth. Capitalism is about the pursuit of ever GREATER profit. It can never sit still. It can never be satisfied. Change, in the pursuit of greater wealth and power for some, is fundamental and endemic to the system.

It does not follow that all businessmen achieve this objective. Development within capitalism is uneven. Some who invest and pursue profit have to settle for more modest returns.

Train service through Lac Megantic is a case in point. The rail line was once part of the CPR mainline from Montreal to St. John New Brunswick, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over time, CP concluded that their investment in the line could achieve a greater return elsewhere. It was not the case that profit could not be realized from the operation of the line. It was rather that a greater return on investment could be had elsewhere.

Enter a group of financial eager-beavers, willing to settle for less. A holding company called Rail World Inc. in Chicago, Illinois was formed and proceeded to create a network of short line rail operations in North America and the UK. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway was among them. (9/7/13)

They had an initial advantage over CP. They did not have to observe and honour the collective labour agreements that “burdened” the larger company. They could and did hire fewer workers for less. For example and in the interest of safety, CN and CP employ a running trade crew of two — an engineer and conductor — on all freight trains, be they carrying dangerous products or not. Their gross pay ranges from $75,000 to $125,000 a year. MMAR chose to reduce the train crew to one — with permission of the Federal Government. Moreover the Company’s unionized work force in Quebec – 75 – is paid less than the unionized work force employed by CP and CN. (8/7/13)

There is evidence that the Company chose not to practice high and consistent rail maintenance. The July 9th edition of the Globe and Mail contained a full page report of observations, concerns and complaints made by Company workers, residents and local governments concerning the state and safety of the rail track running through and about the town of Lac Megantic. A more comprehensive documentation of the state of the 510 mile rail network by journalist Les Perreau was published in the Focus section of July 27th edition of Toronto’s “national” newspaper. In it, the CEO of World Rail Inc., the owner of MMAR, blames governments throughout North America for this dangerous state of affairs. In his words: “We all wish the national rail infrastructure was in better condition, but after years of starvation while nearly all government assistance has gone into highway development, this is quite representative of the thousands of miles of light-duty branch line (sic) in the U.S. and Canada.” In other words, the financial burden of ensuring high track maintenance and safety should be at least shared by the tax payer in the interest of securing a profit for a few.

The same CEO has stated several times that the Company assumed the oil from the Bakken field was non-combustible. The company that leased and loaded the oil tankers – World Fuel Services Corporation of Miami – provided MMAR with a detailed bill of lading. No chemicals were identified in the oil, a critical consideration as some oil extracted from the Bakken field has been found to contain high levels of hydrogen sulphide vapour, which is flamable and explosive. Mr. Ed Burkhardt, the CEO of World Rail Inc. had made reference to this bill of lading but has declined to make it public.(19/7/13)

It is important to add that the leased tanker cars (TOT-111A) “continue to present risks, even following impacts at moderate operating speeds”, concluded the Transportation Safety Board in 2004. (LP 20/7/13). Mr. Burkhardt has yet to comment on why MMAR chose to make up a dangerous goods train with old and unsafe rolling stock.

Mention has been made of the operation of the train by a crew of one. According to the Director General of rail safety at Transport Canada, “Our rules and regulations do not stipulate one, two or three members of a crew… In the case of one-man operation, a railway will have to provide 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 got no issue with that.” (11/7/13)

It is clear that the Ministry had “no issue” with the Company in this instance. Indeed, Mr. Burkhardt boasted: “We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-men crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction (for operators).”

On another day, he said with pride: “I think actually that they (Transport Canada) wanted to use us as a kind of prototype.” (9/7/13) It was an expression of hope that would please Mr. Harper.

More to the point, Mr. Burkhardt chose to publicly blame the Nantes volunteer fire department for improperly handling the engine fire on the evening of July 6th.(9/7/13) When the fire chief of the volunteer brigade publicly affirmed that the firemen followed the MMAR’s protocol for handling train fires, Mr. Burkardt accused the locomotive engineer of improperly securing the train. (11/7/13)

These bold attempts to assign blame for the tragedy did not escape the attention of the legal community. A lawyer from Cassels, Brock and Blackwell LLP of Toronto is reported to have said that he would not advise any company spokesmen to make such definitive statements before all the facts are known. “My advice would have been to establish a public presence but don’t say anything prejudicial to yourself”.(12/7/13) In other words, avoid candor and create but another “appearance of things.”

Taken together, all of these decisions arose out of rational calculations by human beings who held managerial and financial responsibilities for the railway and the holding company. Were they taken in the face of some measure of risk? Yes. Clearly, the pursuit of profit in this instance was a more compelling consideration than a concern for human and community life.

This conclusion has a more chilling resonance when one recalls remarks attributed to the Prime Minister, when he visited Lac Megantic on July 7th He is reported to have described the derailment and explosion as an ‘unimaginable disaster”. Unimaginable? This from a man with a zeal for unbridled capitalism? This from a reactionary politician whose political party is unequivocally committed to freeing manufacturing, commerce and finance from ‘unnecessary” government oversight and regulation? This from a Prime Minister whose Government permitted the operation of a dangerous goods train with a crew of one?

The Megantic rail disaster is but a tragic moment in a larger drama that is unfolding concerning the future of oil and the transportation thereof in the political economy of the nation. The oil industry is already spending a Queen’s ransom in “educating” the public on the “true nature and promise” of the industry. The Harper Government has already seriously weakened and compromised public control over the operation and expansion of the industry. It has endeavoured to discredit, diminish and discourage any science that discovers and publishes findings that question or are at variance with Harper’s narrow and reactionary view of the world. For their part, transportation companies are already promising operational reforms in anticipation of proposals for tougher and more effective regulations that may arise out of public inquiries into the Megantic disaster.

From the point of view of capital and the Harperites, there remains an unanswered and threatening question. Will the public in the days and years ahead, accept their definition of necessity, their conception of reality, their portrayal of the “appearance of things”? Will they buy into their agenda for the way development must be?

Make no mistake about it. The future of capitalism requires the larger public to accept the premise that the needs of one are in the interests of all. To his credit, Mr. Harper remains candid. He continues to publicly embrace and celebrate the unfettered guiding hand of the market place, even in the face of a few business leaders and groups who are calling for a more socially responsible political economy. Will the larger public that remains beyond Harper’s natural and reactionary constituency permit this view to prevail and shape the nation’s future?

James N. McCrorie is Professor Emeritus at the University of Regina.

This article originally appeared in issue 20.4 of the CCPA Monitor. Used with permission.

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