'There you have it': Railway expert concludes more handbrakes would have prevented Lac-Mégantic tragedy

Railway accident investigator Stephen Callaghan has concluded double the number of handbrakes should have been applied to the 74-car fuel train left parked for the night in Nantes, Que., 12 kilometres up the track from Lac-Mégantic.

Locomotive engineer never conducted brake efficiency test in compliance with rules, says Stephen Callaghan

The Crown's expert witness, Stephen Callaghan, testified 14 handbrakes should have been applied to the MMA fuel train to prevent it from running down the track toward Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013. In fact, half that number had been applied. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

An expert in railway accident investigations has concluded that if double the number of handbrakes had been applied and a brake efficiency test performed when a 74-car fuel train was parked for the night in Nantes, Que., the Lac-Mégantic disaster never would have happened.

"The accident could have been prevented by applying a sufficient number of handbrakes, properly tested, to ensure that the train would have remained in place in compliance with rule 112 and company instructions," concluded Stephen Callaghan, the Crown's expert witness, wrapping up his testimony before his cross-examination began Wednesday.

"There you have it."

Callaghan, a resident of Port-Cartier, Que., was hired by provincial police to help in their investigation in the aftermath of the train disaster.

He spent hours in the witness box, dissecting the report he compiled with data gathered from the black box of the runaway train which derailed and exploded, killing 47 people in the early hours of July 6, 2013.

Locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, 56, operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, and rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, all former employees of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway, are each being tried for criminal negligence causing 47 deaths.

Former Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. employees Thomas Harding, right, Jean Demaitre, centre, and Richard Labrie, seen here at the time of their arrests in 2014, are each being tried for criminal negligence causing 47 deaths. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press)

Harding should have applied 14 handbrakes

On Tuesday, Callaghan described a visual test he performed on the train after it derailed which indicated handbrakes had not been applied to any of the convoy's 73 fuel cars.

He concluded handbrakes had only been applied to the train's five locomotives, a VB car (a converted caboose which houses remote control equipment) and a buffer car, for a total of seven.

Callaghan built on that testimony Wednesday, referring to charts and tables to determine how much weight the handbrakes could hold by using a theoretical calculation. 

"Are seven handbrakes a sufficient number of handbrakes to hold the train?"  asked Crown prosecutor Sacha Blais.

"No," he answered. "You would require a handbrake on all of the locomotives, and you would need a total of 14 handbrakes, including locomotives and cars — which is seven more than those that were actually observed."

Callaghan further explained that eleven handbrakes would have been sufficient, had they all been applied to the fuel cars.

Callaghan also testified the blackbox data indicated no efficiency brake test was ever performed on the train once it was parked with the lead locomotive left idling in Nantes, 12 kilometres up the track from Lac-Mégantic. 

Earlier in the trial, Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and the jury heard that such a test involves manually applying a sufficient number of handbrakes to the train before turning off the air brake system and applying traction to make sure the handbrakes can keep the train in place. 

The judge and jurors also heard that such a test is required under established railway regulations.

'Responsibility travels in both directions'

Under cross-examination by Harding's lawyer, Tom Walsh, Callaghan was pressed about the safety environment at his former employer, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador (QNSL) railway.

Callaghan described a culture where constantly improving upon safety standards was paramount.

"This particular approach is something which has been a hallmark of the QNSL over the years?" asked Walsh.  "If someone would go work for QNSL, they would learn pretty fast that safety is important for everyone?" 

"Yes," answered Callaghan.

Callaghan also testified that at QNSL, safety was everyone's concern.

"Safety is as much the business of the boss as the man with the boots on the ground?" asked Walsh.

"Responsibility travels in both directions," replied Callaghan.

Dozens of rules adopted for QNSL's 1-man crews

Callaghan testified that for a long period, QNSL was the only railway in Canada which had permission to operate with one-man crews.

"There have been all kinds of conditions that needed to be met," suggested Walsh. "So you remember how many?" 

"Sixty-five to be implemented before single-man operations were allowed, and four additional ones which had to be done within 12 months of the single-man operations beginning," answered Callaghan, who told the court he had been part of the union committee, which helped to draw up the Transport Canada regulations.
Michael Horan, the MMA's former director of safety and training in Quebec, told the court that the QNSL railway, the only other company to operate one-man crews in Quebec, ran under much stricter conditions. (Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada)

Callaghan testified all employees went through at least ten days of specialized training related to single-person train operations.

"Were there other important requirements on top of training?" asked Walsh.

"There had to be an anti-collision [device] installed on the trains, first responders, wilderness survival because you're working on the railroad, once you're 10 miles out of town, you're in the  bush," explained Callaghan.

Earlier in the trial, former MMA assistant director Michael Horan told the court the only requirement for the one-man crew operation at the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway was to have a mirror installed on the conductor's side of the locomotive.

​The cross-examination of Callaghan, the trial's 27th witness, is expected to continue Thursday.



  • 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 7:00 PM ET