Locomotive engineer Tom Harding was patient, safety-conscious, Lac-Mégantic trial hears

A former MMA train conductor told a Sherbrooke court Tuesday that the locomotive engineer who operated the ill-fated train on the night of the tragedy counselled him "my conscience should dictate my moves, to reassure me my job was done and that I could sleep well that night."

'My conscience should dictate my moves,' Jonathan Couture recalls Harding telling him, so 'I could sleep well'

Locomotive engineer Thomas Harding is one of the three former MMA employees charged with criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in connection with the Lac-Mégantic disaster. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) train conductor who worked at MMA in the year leading up to the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster told a Sherbrooke court Tuesday that Thomas Harding, the locomotive engineer who operated the ill-fated train on the night of the tragedy, went out of his way to help his colleagues.

Harding, 56, is one of three former MMA employees, along with operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, and railway traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, who are on trial for criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in connection with the deadly derailment and explosions.

Speaking quietly and calmly, Jonathan Couture stood in the witness box at the Sherbrooke courthouse Tuesday and told Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and jurors Harding "knew his territory from top to bottom and always respected speed limits."

Under cross-examination by Harding's lawyer, Charles Shearson, Couture testified that as a more experienced colleague, Harding regularly gave him helpful pointers.
Jonathan Couture, who worked as a train conductor at Montreal, Maine and Atlantic in the year before the 2013 Lac-Mégantic tragedy, described a working environment with lax safety standards but said Thomas Harding had been safety conscious and gave him sound advice. (Marie-Hélène Rousseau/Radio-Canada)

"If he saw I was going to do something dangerous or incorrect, he enjoyed talking to me about it or making suggestions," Couture said, recalling one incident in which Harding had given him sound advice.

"I was here in Sherbrooke in the cautionary limits zone, and we were about to leave towards Megantic, and I wasn't sure if I had applied the handbrakes on the cars left in the yard…. I decided to speak to Tom about it before we were too far," said Couture.

"His reaction was to stop the train and ask me to go back," he recalled, adding that Harding told him "my conscience should dictate my moves, to reassure me my job was done and that I could sleep well that night."


Couture told the court his nickname at MMA had been "Joe-le-prudent" (Joe Careful).

"I was a bit of a handbrake maniac," Couture said, when asked how the moniker originated.

Couture testified several of his colleagues had tried to dissuade him from using so many handbrakes when securing a train.

"Did Tom Harding ever discourage you from that practice?" asked Shearson.


Lax safety standards

Earlier in his testimony, Couture described a working environment with lax safety standards. 

He told Dumas and jurors his bosses never followed up with employees after mistakes were made in the field.

Couture testified he was unaware MMA had a safety management system.

Couture told the court he'd worked and been trained at Canadian Pacific Railway before working at MMA, and said his MMA supervisors dealt with accidents in a reactionary manner, rather than trying to prevent incidents before they happened.

"Is it correct to say that at MMA, it was much looser than at CP, which was much stricter?" asked Shearson.

"Yes, the training and supervision was a lot more [complete] at CP than it was at MMA," answered Couture.

"What were the measures that stemmed from … warnings or reprimands?" asked Shearson.

"Depending on the incident or accident, it could begin [with] a warning to a suspension without pay," explained Couture.

"To your knowledge, was it your obligation to follow training on the rule that had not been followed?" asked Shearson.

"To my knowledge, no."

The fuel train had been left idling at Nantes, Que., the night before it rolled down the track, derailing and exploding in downtown Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013. The resulting fires killed 47 people. (Mathieu Bélanger/Reuters)

Couture testified Ken Strout and Paul Budge were the MMA supervisors who were in charge of issuing warnings, but he said he never met them personally.

"You never saw them in Farnham or anywhere else on the MMA network in Canada?" Shearson asked.

"I don't know them, never saw them," said Couture.

"Once the person was warned or sanctioned, was there a verification on the field to make sure the person had understood their mistake?" pressed Shearson.

"To my knowledge, no," said Couture.

Little maintenance of locomotives

Couture told the court it was very common for MMA locomotives to produce black smoke and spew oil.

"Is that something you noticed while you were rolling along in the yard?" asked Shearson.

"Yes, when we were in the yard or talking with the guys in the shop," said Couture.

"When we're speaking of general maintenance of locomotives, what did you notice during your work as a conductor before July 2013 concerning the general state of the locomotives?" asked Shearson.

"There was not much maintenance," said Couture.

"And when you observed the locomotive produced a large cloud of black smoke, did you keep operating the locomotive?" pressed Shearson.   

"As though nothing was wrong," replied Couture. 

Couture, the 28th witness in the trial, finished his testimony Tuesday.

The trial continues.


  • A previous version of this story reported the three defendants are charged with 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each person who died in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. In fact, prior to the trial, the Crown simplified the charge to a single count each of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths. The change has no bearing on the criteria used by the jury to render its verdict or on the possible sentence.
    Jan 15, 2018 7:04 PM ET