Lac-Mégantic trial hears 9 handbrakes should have been used to secure tanker train

The MMA employee in charge of safety and training in Quebec who has spent three days testifying about braking regulations and the practice of parking trains said after the railway began hauling convoys of crude oil, no changes were made based on the tanker-train's contents.

MMA employee in charge of safety in Quebec testifies he had few resources and no training, just rule books

Michael Horan, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway's assistant director, said he told police after the Lac-Mégantic disaster that nine handbrakes should have been applied to the train that rolled away on its own from Nantes, Que., derailing 13 kilometres down the track. (Radio-Canada)

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway employee in charge of safety and training in Quebec said after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, he told police a minimum of nine handbrakes should have been applied to the train parked at Nantes, Que., on July 5, 2013.

That train, carrying 73 tanker cars, rolled 13 kilometres down the tracks and derailed near the centre of the town of Lac-Mégantic. The resulting explosions and fires killed 47 people.

MMA's assistant director of transportation, Michael Horan, is the 11th witness to appear at the trial of three former MMA employees charged with criminal negligence in those deaths: locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, 56, train controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53. 

In the Crown's opening statement at the start of the trial before Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas, the prosecution said it will enter into evidence a tape recording of Harding telling Labrie after the derailment that he had only applied seven handbrakes to the train.

Under cross- examination at the Sherbrooke courthouse Thursday, Horan told the court he based his police statement on the number of handbrakes that should have been applied on a chart in a handbook on railway safety regulations.

Few resources, no training

Horan, who started working for MMA in 2003, told the court that although he was in charge of safety and training for all Quebec MMA employees, he never had an official job description, nor was he given any instruction on how to teach safety standards to  employees.

"So you were just given books filled with rules and expected to make do?" asked Thomas Walsh, Harding's lawyer.

"Yes,"  Horan replied.

Walsh also asked Horan if he knew about rules introduced in 2001 requiring companies to have a safety management system in place in order to be proactive and mitigate risks.  Horan said pamphlets were left in some Quebec stations for employees to read, but that's all.

Questioned about what changes were made to the practice of parking MMA trains in Nantes after the railway began hauling long convoys of crude oil, Horan said there weren't any — and that no adjustments had been made based on the train's content or weight.

The 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed 13 kilometres from where it had been parked. The ensuing explosions and fire killed 47 people.

He also told the court how MMA management in the U.S. had instituted one-man crews at its Quebec branch office in Farnham shortly before the tragedy.

He said that although locomotive engineers did have special certification to operate a train alone, there was pushback from some employees about starting the practice.

"Certain staff were not in favour of it," he said, adding "the only requirement MMA asked for when the one-man crews began in Farnham was for a mirror to be installed on the conductor's side."

Reliance on automatic brakes

The bulk of Horan's testimony revolved around questions about the different brake systems on a train, and the rules, regulations and tests used when applying a train's handbrakes.

Crown prosecutor Sacha Blais asked Horan about an email he'd received from MMA superintendent Paul Budge asking him to remind Harding not to leave the train's automatic brakes on when a convoy is parked.

"I know that all locomotive engineers had been informed of this issue," he said, speaking specifically of train engineers working between Farnham and Megantic, "because they are the ones who used the automatic brakes on unattended trains." 

He explained that according to safety regulations, the automatic brakes should have been released when a train is parked, and only the hand brakes should be used to secure a train.

Horan is expected back on the stand Tuesday.


  • This story correctly mentions the MMA train had 73 tanker cars. Some CBC stories mention 74 cars; the 74th was, in fact, an SBU unit, that is, an end-of-train car with an electronic sense and braking unit, which replaces a caboose.
    Nov 14, 2017 12:42 PM ET