The Weekly Reflektion Week 32 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion revisits the Lac-Mégantic train crash and discusses the actions taken and their effect.

Thanks to Pam for spotting an article in the New York Times.  This emphasizes the importance of an international network!

When things go wrong, those with authority often promise to make it right. But, do they? Do you revisit your actions and check their effectiveness?

Our Reflektion from week 22 in 2018 discussed the causes of the train crash at Lac-Mégantic in Quebec where 47 people were killed when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in a town centre in the middle of the night. The Canadian Government and the railway industry vowed to quickly address people’s fears. “There will be investigations to ascertain what has occurred to make sure that it can’t happen again” said Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister at the time of the accident.

The actions that we agree on after any incident are often not revisited to ensure that that they have had the desired effect. In this Reflektion we shall consider the changes that were made after the disaster.

Deregulation of the railway industry, which had given the oversight of the safety issues to the railways themselves, was to be reversed. The Canadian Government increased its oversight of the railways, added inspectors, and introduced new safety rules. Railway companies must be licensed by Transport Canada, the authority responsible for enforcing railway regulations, to be able to operate. A new design of tanker with additional crash resistance is now required for dangerous goods, and the goal of full replacement was reached in January 2019, 6 years ahead of schedule. Limitations in crash testing mean that while the new cars promise much on paper, their effectiveness in a real-world disaster remains to be seen. ‘We won’t know for sure until we see how they perform in actual accidents’ said a safety board official.

Another critical policy change obligated all trains to have at least 2 crew members. Interestingly, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in the US recently abandoned a proposed regulation that would have required two-man crews.

Railways are now required to look for alternative routes to keep dangerous goods out of urban areas. In theory, this action could help reduce the chances of a fatal accident in a populated area, but in practice, this is easier said than done. Little has changed, with trains carrying oil, explosives and toxic chemicals continuing to roll though urban centres day and night. Transport Canada said that the railway companies do not report how many goods trains they have moved away from cities following their safety reviews. Such an action appears to be positive, but if it cannot be implemented, and is not being monitored, the effect in terms of reducing risk seems minimal.

In the US, the (FRA) requires similar reviews of routes, but said that dangerous cargos are rarely re-routed because ‘alternatives may increase overall transit time, require additional handling, or introduce other operational risks.

The number of runaway trains in Canada has increased by about 10% in the last decade, with 62 trains registered as runaway in 2017. In February 2019, 3 employees died when a runaway train flew off a bridge having been parked on a slope.

The intentions behind the actions following a Major Accident are in the main good, however, sometimes the challenges and realities of their implementation are not considered thoroughly. Perhaps, on occasion, the pressure to be seen to be taking action undermines the assessment of how realistic the actions are. Often the follow up of actions is poor so people responsible are unaware that the actions have not met their intentions. This only becomes clear after the investigation into the next Major Accident.

Reflekt AS