Catastrophic Quebec train explosion ‘a failure of management,’ union rep says

Posted Aug. 06, 2013, at 6:35 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 07, 2013, at 10:12 a.m.

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James Stem, National Legislative Director of the 125,000-member United Transportation Union.
United Transportation Union
James Stem, National Legislative Director of the 125,000-member United Transportation Union.

HERMON, Maine — The railway company that owns the runaway train that killed 47 people in Quebec last month committed basic safety and management errors to save money that led to the disaster, an industry expert who has testified to Congress on rail safety says.

In words that reinforced an emergency order the nation’s top rail regulator issued Friday, James Stem said that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway created a situation where serious accidents could occur by allowing one engineer to handle its train and leaving that train parked unattended on a steep grade of main track outside Lac-Megantic on July 6.

The Hermon-based company, he said, does things like keep its locomotive running unattended to allow single-person crews on its trains and to save paying two-man rail crews for the few hours it would take to do basic brake tests.

“If you know the industry, you know the safety protocols in place have been arrived at through trial and error through the last 160 years, and you realize that what is involved is arrogance and disrespect to the traditions of the industry,” Stem said. “They were willing to gamble the lives of communities to save an hour or two.

“It is obviously a failure of management,” Stem added.

Ed Burkhardt, president of the parent company that owns MMA, Rail World Inc., did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday. Robert Grindrod, MMA’s president, has declined to comment on all matters pertaining to the accident.

Burkhardt previously dismissed claims that the accident was created by the train having a one-man crew as “a red herring.” He has consistently defended the railroad’s practices as safe.

Investigators of the Lac-Megantic tragedy have said it is too early to determine what caused the crash, North America’s worst rail disaster in two decades. Two big questions are whether the lone engineer applied sufficient hand brakes when he parked the train for the night and why the fuel in the rail cars was so volatile, creating huge explosions and a deadly wall of fire after derailing.

The train had 72 cars of light crude oil when it derailed in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. It had been parked for the night, one of its engines running to keep its airbrake system charged, on a steep grade in the nearby town of Nantes by the engineer more than an hour before the accident. Nantes firefighters have said that the engine was shut off after they doused a fire per the standard operating procedure dictated by MMA, Canadian media has reported.

The Federal Railroad Administration emergency order Friday banned parking unattended trains carrying hazardous materials on main rail lines unless government authorized.

The order requires railroads to submit guidelines to FRA for securing unattended trains hauling hazardous materials and mandates that workers aboard trains transporting hazardous materials must report to dispatchers the number of hand brakes applied, the train’s tonnage and length, the track’s grade and terrain, among other things.

FRA also advised but did not mandate multi-member crews on trains carrying hazardous materials.

Stem has opposed one-man crews for years as national legislative director of the 125,000-member Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation Union, and as a member of the Federal Rail Administration Rail Safety Advisory Committee.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents MMA workers, and Stem’s union drafted a joint petition in 2009 asking FRA to ban one-man crews because of their safety concerns. As a union representative, he has testified several times on rail safety before the railroads subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Stem said that MMA’s managers committed significant errors in allowing a train carrying such a large quantity of volatile materials to be parked on any main line, but especially one with such a steep grade. Such trains are typically parked in rail yards or on side tracks equipped with devices to stop runaway trains, he said.

“Part of operating a railroad is finding out where you can arrange crew changes,” Stem said. “You don’t have to leave a train sitting on a main track” where vandals could break into it and release the brake system.

According to Burkhardt, the engineer on the Lac-Megantic train claimed to have set 11 hand brakes on the train but might not have set enough. The shutoff of the engine left the airbrake system unpowered, he has said.

An engineer on a train that long might have had to walk a half mile in the dark, and would have had to start setting brakes from the train’s rearmost car, or the car closest to the downhill slope, Stem said. To ensure that enough hand brakes are set, a single crewmember might have to walk back and forth between a train locomotive and rail cars several times — a time-consuming chore. Each car has a hand brake.

“It would be quite a task to accomplish in 90 minutes,” Stem said.

On a typical two-or-more crew operation, conductors would have stepped off trains at spots where the train’s end would be once the train stops. Federal regulations would require a crew returning to an unpowered train to perform initial terminal brake tests, which can take more than an hour, before moving the train, Stem said.

“The only reason to leave a train running [overnight] is to avoid a brake test,” Stem said.

Information from Reuters is included in this report.

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