In some ways, speaking of the lessons of a tragedy too soon seems unspeakably rude. Quebec is a tight-knit society. It calls itself a “nation”, and in the sense that it’s a nation it’s a small one. Losing the center of a thriving old town, suddenly, unexpectedly, in a firey catastrophe, this is not the sort of thing that this peaceful backwater civilization is accustomed to. It’s a national tragedy of the first order. I think the first thing to say, even if I expect no one directly affected to read this, is to express profound condolences to the citizens and friends of the town of Lac-Mégantic.
Loss of Place
Some people find it rude to speak of property when there is so much loss of life, but it appears to have been a real gem of a downtown. Losing beautiful and happy places diminishes us as well, perhaps not so tragically and intensely as for those directly involved, but it’s a loss for the culture for whom this place was a nexus of positive focus, of joy, of camaraderie. There is a small direct loss multiplied by millions of people. This is a loss that affects every person who cares about Quebec.
Lac-Mégantic, avant et apres
Taking it Personally
The next thing I need to say is that for me, it feels oddly personal.
Canada rarely makes the news. Montreal less so, except as a tourist destination. But my little home suburb on the island of Montreal, usually completely obscure, actually got a mention on the Wikipedia page for the disaster. It was in the Côte St. Luc railyard, in hearing distance of my late father’s condo unit, that the train was handed off from Canadian National to the now infamous Montreal, Maine and Atlantic line.
The idea that many a rolling bomb like this has passed within tens of yards of a bed that I have slept in should not surprise me, I suppose. Many of us live by freight train lines, and it is likely that we take comparable risks without knowing it, without having been consulted, without having a say in the matter. That’s exactly the point that I have been pondering.
I’ve thought about little else in my uncommitted time this week.
Rights of Ownership
I also have to say that I am already astonished at the way that rail freight is handled in North America.
Map of Madison in 1905; this is now the core of a fairly large city.
The various train tracks, including the S-shaped section on the east which enveloped my house, are commonly used for low value freight.
There are many grade crossings, disrupting traffic and sleep.
While I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a moribund freight line through central Madison was revived. Anyone familiar with the geography of Madison will realize that this is a ludicrous route; the most populated part of the city lies on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, and has essentially unsolvable traffic problems. Nevertheless, the eastern part of the isthmus contains a looping rail line which carries freight, and its usage was stepped up after I moved into the neighborhood. It crosses over a dozen intersections, and the law is the law – the train had to emit two long honks, a short, and a long before crossing each and every one of them. The result, for those of us finding ourselves near the center of curvature of the loop, was a good hour of continuous honking every time a train came by, which would happen a few times each night.
Now this is not as much a horror as a mushroom cloud, to be sure, but it was a considerable inconvenience.
The rights of way were established long ago, and the rights assigned with them remain with the assignees of the original right holders. This despite the great increase in value of the infrastructure that has been built up around the train lines. These rights, formulated by a governing process and not in any intuitive sense property, nevertheless have legal sway. If you live near a train line, you will have to make a whole lot of trouble to have any influence on how that line is used. (We eventually managed to suppress the horns in the Madison city limits.)
When I first became aware of the tragedy, I immediately thought of Charles Perrow’s amazing book, Normal Accidents, which discusses the nature of high-impact accidents from high-risk technologies. The book is immensely thought-provoking.
Its key point is that disasters do not typically result from a single failure, but from a cascade of failures. Often safety systems are inadequately tested and do not function as expected. Often system operators are confused as to the right behavior. These factors are certainly indicated in the story as it has emerged so far (via Wikipedia):
The MMA freight train departed the CPR yard in Côte Saint-Luc and stopped at Nantes at 23:25 on July 5, 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) west of Lac-Mégantic, for a crew change. The engineer parked the train on the main line by setting the brakes and followed standard procedure by shutting down four of the five locomotives. The engineer did not park the train on the adjacent siding, which has a derail which would have stopped the train from accidentally departing. According to Transport Canada, it is unusual that one leaves an unattended train on the mainline. The engineer left the lead engine, #5017, running to keep air pressure supplied to the air brakes. He then departed for a local hotel, l’Eau Berge in downtown Lac-Mégantic, for the night. While en route to the hotel, the engineer told the taxi driver that he felt unsafe leaving a train running while it was spitting oil and thick, black smoke. He said he wanted to call the US office of the MMA, as they would have the power to give him other directives.
The train travelled 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) downhill from Nantes to Lac-Mégantic.
Witnesses recall having seen the train seemingly unattended and in distress around 22:45 that night. People driving on the road next to the stopped train had to slow down as they passed through a thick dark blue diesel fume cloud and as they watched sparks coming out of a locomotive’s chimney.
The Nantes Fire Department responded to a 911 call from a citizen at 23:32 who witnessed a fire caused by a leaking fuel pipe on the first locomotive. The fire department extinguished the blaze and notified the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. By 00:13 two MMA track maintenance employees had arrived from Lac-Mégantic; the Nantes firefighters left the scene as the MMA employees confirmed the train was safe. Yves Bourdon, director of the MMA, told CBC that the air brakes of all locomotives and wagons were all activated, as well as hand brakes (mechanical) on 5 locomotives and 10 cars.
The MMA has alleged that the lead locomotive was tampered with; that the diesel engine was shut down, thereby disabling the compressor powering the air brakes which allowed the train to move downhill from Nantes into Lac-Mégantic once the air pressure dropped in the reservoirs on the cars. Teamsters Canada Rail Conference vice-president Doug Finnson disputes this theory, stating that the key braking system on a stopped, unsupervised train are the hand brakes, which are completely independent from the motor-powered compressor that feeds the air brakes.
According to Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert, “We shut down the engine before fighting the fire. Our protocol calls for us to shut down an engine because it is the only way to stop the fuel from circulating into the fire.”.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the railway dispatcher was warned of the train having technical difficulties sufficiently early on the evening of Friday, July 5.
By regulation, “when equipment is left at any point a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving” (per Section 112 of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules) and “the effectiveness of the hand brakes must be tested” before relying on their retarding force. However, there are no rules against leaving a train unlocked, running and unattended, even if it contains dangerous materials and is stopped on a main rail line, on a hill just next to a residential area.
Soon after being left once again unattended, the freight train began moving downhill on its own toward the town. The 72 loaded tank cars detached from the five locomotives and buffer car approximately 800 metres (0.50 mi) from Lac-Mégantic, then entered the town at high speed and derailed on a curve.
There was indeed a cascade of failures – clearly there was some confusion about setting the brakes – apparently the engineer felt disempowered to deal with the situation – clearly the interface between the small town fire department, the engineer (
who has not been identified but likely is French-speaking but Montreal-based and not local Update: speculations on engineer wrong on all counts; he is Tom Harding, presumably not from a French-speaking family, who lives in what we “anglos” call the Eastern Townships, i.e., closer to Lac Megantic than Montreal is), and the English-speaking head office in Chicago, (at midnight on a Saturday night!) was not emergency ready. In the end, 72 tank cars of North Dakota light sweet crude headed for an export port in Maine started rolling down the hill toward an unsuspecting Quebec resort town enjoying a summer Saturday night.
It’s also worth noticing how hard the company is working the blame-the-man-on-the-scene angle, which Perrow also describes as common. But of course, it would not have been technically difficult to design a system such that the engine could not be switched off if the passive brakes were disengaged. The real problem is the lack of seriousness of purpose placed by the company on safety issues.
It’s interesting how this turns the Keystone story on its head. The oil was of American origin and headed for export via an American port. What it was doing in Quebec is a question worthy of pondering. Apparently the border which is such a pain in the neck for humans who cross it regularly is utterly porous to commodities.
The Archaism of the Rail Industry in North America
How and why the train actually crossed onto the island of Montreal on its ill fated intended journey from North Dakota to Maine may cause the geographically aware non-Montrealer some confusion. It actually raises some peculiarities of Canadian economic history. Suffice it to say that any traffic between the Atlantic and the Pacific passing through eastern Canada will be peculiarly hard pressed to avoid a series of bridges from the mainland, onto the island, and back to the mainland. It is an odd feature that such a huge, sparsely settled country has a traffic choke point on a heavily populated river island. But it’s a fact. And the fact traces many decades back into the economic history of Canada. It’s clearly not an optimal route, any more than sending interstate freight down the Madison isthmus makes any sense.
Some of the freight lines in Quebec. The pattern is universal. All roads lead to Montreal.
But there it is. For historical reasons and for practical purposes, you can’t take a train across Canada without crossing onto and off an urban island.
This raises the whole question of the archaism of the freight rail network. The whole system was developed over a century ago, and both the legal rights of the track owners and the routes of the tracks were developed at a time when needs were different. For one thing, the trains were carrying coal at worst, not, basically, jet fuel as in this case, nor chlorine nor pesticides nor other potential disaster precursors. For another, tracks did not shift in and out of use, baiting and switching property owners into moving into quiet areas that suddenly become industrialized.
Archaism of Procedures and Standards
A small corner of the vast Côte St. Luc railyard
We can easily conclude from the evidence at hand that it’s not just the routes but also the procedures of the rail industry that are archaic, indeed stunningly archaic and not fit for purpose. Basically we have a spectacular loss of life and of a historical cultural nexus as a result of a cascade of errors beginning with a small mishap. It is clear that nobody really had any idea, at the time, what the right procedure should be.
Is this any way to run an airline? No, and with this much at stake a train service (or a pipeline service for that matter) should be as tightly regulated as an airline. But they aren’t. And the businesses unregulated in this way will consider the lack of regulation an established right, and will fight tooth and nail to avoid additional regulation. And to be sure, their book value is based on their under-regulated status.
Does this deny a citizen of Côte St. Luc, Lac-Mégantic, or Madison, (or Mayflower or Kalamazoo for that matter) the right to maintain the safety of their own property? A literal reading of market libertarian doctrine, I think, would say that indeed, you forfeited that right when you bought or leased that property – it is your responsibility to investigate every risk already written into prior arrangements on that turf, to negotiate with the holders of existing rights individually or as a corporate entity of your own, or to live elsewhere.
Charles Perrow Redux
Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, does not concur with this position any more than I do. He dismisses them as follows in an early chapter:
Third-party victims, innocent bystanders, have no such involvement in the system. I have heard some proponents argue, in a conference on establishing safety goals for nuclear power plants, that people can choose not to live near a nuclear power plant (or choose to avoid going to events at a stadium that is in the flightpath of an O’Hare Airport runway). But I think these arguments can be dismissed. Nuclear plants exist near all densely populated areas in the United States; there is simply no practical means to avoid being within 50 miles of one. Even if one could, a severe core meltdown with breach of containment under the proper weather conditions could contaminate areas as large as the whole Northeast. The plutonium that might have crashed on Madagascar during the Apollo 13 emergency re-entry of the atmosphere would have contaminated innocent bystanders in a distant part of the world that one would have thought safe from such high-technology disasters. People are aware of risks associated with flying; but I suspect that most people living downstream from large dams do not realize the dam is near enough to endanger their lives in the case of a failure.
His concluding chapter (I have the 1984 edition) expands on this idea at length and I won’t go into it much further at present. I highly recommend Perrow’s book to anyone concerned about dangerous technologies.
But the import of the opening salvo is clear. It’s not only the owners of the industrial infrastructure that have rights conveyed by ancient agreements. Corporations are quick to see and establish externalities, ways in which they can offload risk and loss to their neighbors, their society, and even other countries and other generations.
Those of us in the world the corporations are creating may not be quick to defend our own stakes because we don’t see them being encroached upon, sometimes not until it is too late. But that doesn’t mean we have no rights.
Phil Mattera makes a shorter version of the same argument at DeSmog. I agree 100% with his conclusion:
Yet some observers are seeking to exploit the deaths in Quebec by making the bizarre argument that the real lesson of the accident is the need to rely more on pipelines rather than railroads to carry the crude oil gushing out of the North Dakota Bakken fields (the content of the MMA tankers) and the tar sands of Canada. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, for instance, is using the incident to argue the need for the controversial XL Pipeline.
How quickly these people forget that the safety record of pipelines is far from unblemished. Hoeven’s neighbors in Montana are still recovering from the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled some 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.
The problem is not the particular delivery system by which hazardous substances are transported but the fact that too many of those systems are under the control of executives such as Burkhardt who put their profits before the safety of the public.