Lac-Mégantic train crash a wake-up call for U.S. rail safety

The Lac-Mégantic train disaster was a wake-up call that was heard in the United States and is helping put pressure on the railroad industry and the government to tighten safety regulations.

Quebec town's mayor visiting Washington with other Canadian mayors to discuss rail safety

Investigators look over tanker cars that were part of the derailed train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last summer. The crash that killed 47 people is used as an example by people in the U.S. who are pushing for tighter safety regulations. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The Lac-Mégantic train disaster was a wake-up call that was heard in the United States and is helping to put pressure on the railroad industry and the government to tighten safety regulations.

The crash last July that killed 47 people in the small Quebec town was mentioned repeatedly during testimony at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill that focused on rail safety.

Lac-Mégantic’s tragedy certainly is on the radar of American legislators, and the community’s mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, is in Washington today to meet with some of them in person as well as Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer.

She made the trip along with another Quebec mayor, Vicki May Hamm from Magog, and three New Brunswick mayors: Roger Doiron, of Richibucto; Luc Desjardins, mayor of Petit Rocher; and Jean-Guy Marquis, from Edmundston. The mayors are members of the Cross-Border Municipal Coalition for Railway Safety, which includes municipal representatives from several states.

They met on Monday with officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, and after today’s meeting with Doer and speaking to the media the delegation will hold an open house for members of Congress. They intend to talk about what happened in Lac-Mégantic and to encourage Congress to address key safety priorities.

“This tragic event in Canada really woke people up to the potential risk all of these communities are facing along these railroads that go in and out North Dakota to both ends of the country and to very populated areas all across the United States,” said Marianne Lavelle, senior energy editor at National Geographic, during an interview with Radio-Canada.

“There’s no question that Lac-Mégantic really began the move in the United States for safety regulations,” said Lavelle.

There have been calls for years for changes to railway regulations, particularly when it comes to transporting hazardous materials such as crude oil, but Lavelle said nothing substantial had happened until the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Crude oil traffic by rail surging in U.S.

“It had a huge impact because communities in the United States had been asking for some attention to rail safety. And really it was not until the Lac-Mégantic accident happened that the federal authorities who regulate rails really began in earnest the process of trying to put into place new regulations,” she said.

As in Canada, the transportation of crude oil by rail in the United States has surged in the last decade. The American Association of Railroads’ 2012 annual report of hazardous materials transported by rail said that crude oil traffic has increased by 443 per cent since 2005.

“Federal requirements simply have not kept pace with evolving demands placed on the railroad industry and evolving technology and knowledge about hazardous materials and accidents,” Robert L. Sumwalt, a member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told the subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials, on Feb. 26.

The NTSB has been pushing for changes to tank car designs to make them safer, among other regulations. Sumwalt told the committee that the Lac-Mégantic crash that involved 72 DOT-111 tank cars and other accidents have shown substantial shortcomings in tank design that create “an unacceptable public risk.”

John Tolman, vice-president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, also raised Lac-Mégantic during his testimony at the committee hearing, noting that it was a one-man crew operating the train. He said most freight trains in the U.S. are operated by two-man crews, but it’s not the law, and it should be, he said. Canada’s railway regulator now prohibits the use of a one-man crew since Lac-Mégantic.

A representative of the railroad industry said companies have voluntarily been making changes to how they carry crude oil and are making other safety upgrades without being required to by Washington.

Modifications have been made to speed restrictions and inspections, for example, said Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

He noted that the Lac-Mégantic crash and other accidents in the U.S. have raised questions about rail safety, but that the industry is committed to operating safely and statistics reflect that commitment.

“From 2000 to 2012, the train accident rate fell 42 per cent, the rail employee injury rate fell 50 per cent, and the grade crossing collision rate fell 44 per cent, with 2012 seeing record lows in each of these categories,” he said.

Hamberger said the association will continue to work with and listen to communities where crude oil trains pass through.

Lavelle, the National Geographic writer, said the role local mayors can play in changing such a massive system is limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re powerless.

“They have a role in letting people know what’s going on and also letting Washington know that people are concerned about this,” she said. “The power they have is the power of their voice.”