MMA train that derailed and exploded at Lac-Mégantic nearly 3,000 tonnes too heavy, trial hears

Former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway locomotive engineer François Daigle, who regularly ran trains between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic, Que., told a jury he was not allowed to refuse to operate a train, even when he knew it was over the maximum allowed weight.

Former locomotive engineer François Daigle told jury he wasn't allowed to refuse to move overweight train

Former MMA engineer François Daigle, who drove the locomotive that derailed two days before the 2013 rail disaster, testified that he pointed out several repair issues with the machine, but his concerns were dismissed as complaints. (Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada)

A former locomotive engineer for the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) who regularly ran trains between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic, Que., said he was not allowed to refuse to operate a train, even when he knew it was over the maximum allowed weight.

Breathing quickly, his voice quivering, François Daigle testified Thursday at the trial of his former colleagues on charges related to the 2013 deadly Lac-Mégantic trail derailment and explosions.

His testimony is only being reported now because it was subject to a publication ban until Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas lifted that ban Monday morning.

Daigle's fellow locomotive engineer, Thomas Harding, 56, as well as operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, and controller Richard Labrie, 59, are each charged criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in connection with the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Rules dictated maximum weight

Daigle, one of three MMA engineers who operated trains along the Farnham–to–Mégantic route, told the court it was common practice for the company's top management to play loose with established railway regulations.

Referring to a regulation manual and documents which listed the contents and weight of the 73-tanker-car train that derailed on July 6, 2013, Daigle confirmed the maximum weight allowed for an MMA train during the period from April 1, 2013 to Nov. 30 was 6300 tonnes — not counting locomotives.

The train involved in the tragedy weighed 9100 tonnes.

Forty-seven people died after a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded and destroyed the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013. (Reuters)

Manager dismissed locomotive's defects: Daigle

In his third day of testimony Monday, Daigle told the court there were often problems with locomotives at MMA.  

"Things weren't working great," he said. "A lot of locomotives were reported several times, but nothing was ever done."

Earlier in his testimony, Daigle told Dumas and the 14 jurors he drove locomotive 5017 — the same locomotive that was pulling the train that derailed two days later — from Vachon, near Lac-Mégantic, to Farnham on July 4, 2013.

Daigle said on that trip he noticed the locomotive kept losing speed and produced black smoke.  

Daigle told the court he reported the problems to his supervisor, Jean Demaître, and sent a fax to the repair shop in Maine at the end of his shift.  

Daigle said he asked Demaître to change the lead locomotive because of the repair issues.

"What was Demaître's answer?" Crown prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf asked.

"You're complaining again?" Daigle said Demaître told him, continuing: "This is what we have, and at any rate, you are going to be receiving your pension after me."

Daigle said he understood that to mean no changes would be made.

MMA disorganized, lacking resources, Daigle says

Under cross-examination by Charles Shearson, one of Harding's lawyers, Daigle told the court he had worked at Canadian Pacific Railway before working for MMA.  

Daigle said operating bulletins, which communicated information that wasn't in the regulations manuals, were not always organized at MMA.

"At Canadian Pacific, you had a book or log of bulletins you could look at them and sign them," he said.

"At MMA, they were more spread about all over the office," he added. "I had talked about this in a health and safety meeting — that they should be grouped together."

Daigle told the court CP had more resources than MMA and more personnel to provide training.  

"We did simulations when we got a new operational bulletin at CP," said Daigle, "which would help us understand the new rules."

Daigle told the court having various regulations from different authorities sometimes caused confusion for the train engineers and conductors.  He said sometimes they had different interpretations of the same rule.

"The solution was to talk it out with each other and try to explain each other's interpretations," he said. "Otherwise, we would defer to the competent authority."  

"I don't know if you'll agree, but regulations can become complicated?" asked Shearson.

"Yes," said Daigle, with a sigh.

Daigle is the twelfth witness in the trial, taking place at the Sherbrooke courthouse.

He returns the witness box for further cross-examination 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 12:46 PM ET
  • 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 5:48 PM ET