Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Lac-Megantic Oil Train Derailment

While the flames over the horrible derailment at Lac-Megantic are under control, the incident itself is only just beginning to fan the emotional and political flames.  Here's a CBC update, featuring some ridiculous quotes from Montreal, Maine and Atlantic RR president Ed Burkhardt:
Burkhardt has been quoted in news reports as saying he's received many hateful messages and that he hopes he doesn't get shot at when he visits Lac-M├ęgantic, because he doesn't plan to wear a bullet-proof vest for his visit.
Keep in mind Burkhardt is an American CEO of an American company running crude oil trains through French-speaking Quebec, historically no great fan of the United States.  Add to that some of his comments--which sound incredibly callous--(if reported accurately) and you have a recipe for high emotion.

This event also provides two political pressure groups with fodder for argument: the people who believe in pipelines and the enviromentalists who hate oil altogether. Throw in the still simmering US debate over the Keystone pipeline (the State Department is apparently still 'considering' it) and there's potential for a larger  emotional storm.  In Canada the liberals are blaming the event on the Harper government (conservative--saying he cut back inspections, etc) without knowing what they hell they are talking about while videos are going viral despite the videographers having no clue what they are talking about. 

As to the derailment itself here's a brief summary of known facts.  Burkhardt claims somebody tampered with the train after railroad employees last touched it at Nantes.  Perhaps this part of the CBC report explains his contention::
The fire chief in Nantes has offered an assessment different from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway about who might have been to blame in the hours leading up to the tragedy.
Patrick Lambert said his crew had been trained by MMA to handle fires on its line — and they intervened to fight four fires on MMA trains in the past eight years. He said his firefighters had shut off the engine to battle a blaze on the train earlier Friday night, as the MMA operating procedure urged them to do. After extinguishing the fire, he said his crew received the company's blessing to leave the scene.
The company, however, said the fire crew should have alerted the engineer who by that point had gone home to sleep for the night. With the fire crew gone, and the engineer in bed, the train began rolling downhill on a fateful, destructive journey.
Here's a map of the area:

A few questions linger [ed- I am not a railroad professional but do have some familiarity with transportation systems], some of which were answered today in the Canadian Safety Board press conference.  One, the train was not stopped on the siding at Nantes, it was tied down on the main track.  The "X" on the map is the approximate location of a passing track where they could have parked a train, the train in question was probably somewhere close.  Is this where the MMA crews usually hand off trains as they go into and out of the United States or did the train crew simply run out of duty time (no more than 12 hours on in the US)? Further east from Megantic the MMA crosses into the US state of Maine; the oil cars were destined for Saint John, New Brunswick, just east of Maine.  Do these trains go through Customs or get inspected by the US Border Patrol?

Two, what started the fire?  This wasn't cleared up by the presser today.  A "hot box" on one of the cars could explain it but such a thing might have been noticeable to a crew tying down a train for the night on a grade, although today's presser changed the time period between the crew going off duty and the fire from five minutes to fifty minutes, which makes more sense.  Did the crew set handbrakes on some of the cars?  The Canadian TSB says they are looking at brakes in their investigation.  Does the MMA have automatic hot box detectors similar to major railroads or are crews responsible for noticing and reporting?  When was the next MMA train scheduled to pass the area? 

Three,  the story above says the fire department turned off the engine before putting out the fire.  At least that's what Burkhardt says.  But the TSB confirms someone with the railroad showed up and assisted the fire department, then presumably sent them along after the fire was out.  Who?   How far away from the engine(s) was the fire?  Some reports have said the engine itself was on fire, so where was the fire, exactly?   Were there protocols or a memo of understanding in place between the railroad and the town to cover such occurrences?

Since shutting down the locomotive would dump the air brake system leaving only handbrakes on the individual cars to stop a runaway it seems reasonable to assume that any MMA employee would understand that the situation represented a safety hazard. Burkhardt claims his people weren't the last ones who touched the train, so who does he think had access after the fire department and railroad representatives left?

The area in question seems to be along a main road and therefore accessible to vandals or pranksters or others, which apparently has not yet been ruled out.  Part of today's presser contained the following tidbit:
TSB investigators have not been able to reach the site of the explosion because of continuing safety issues at the scene, but they have been able to determine the position of the controls of the locomotive — which continued travelling out the other side of the town after the derailment — and obtain information from the black box.
"There’s a lot of information that need to be validated," Ross said. There’s a lot of reports out there …. We’re following all the credible leads that we can that will help us get to the bottom of this."  He said some of their specific findings can't be released at this time, because that could compromise the ongoing investigation.
In other words, if the settings on the locomotive were found to be in any position other than what is standard in a tie-down situation then somebody moved them after the engineer left.  Anyway, as we await more answers from the Canadian authorities political partisans on both sides of the border will no doubt continue heaving their footballs around in the dark trying to score points before the story fades away.


Right Truth said...

I haven't followed this one. You raise interesting questions. I never really thought about it, but do they not have some kind of security around these trains? The potential for terrorism of any kind, eco, Islamic, whatever, comes to mind.

I'm doubting that the keystone will ever get built here in the US, in spite of the fact that the unions want it.

Right Truth

A.C. McCloud said...

I think it's a dirty little secret. They lock the cabs of the engines so kids can't get in there but someone older could break in. Most people don't pay any attention. Not saying it happened here, just that people should understand a few things before spouting off.