Musings —07.09.2013 08:27 AM—
In the coming weeks and months, as Canada attempts to comprehend the cataclysm that struck Lac-Megantic on the weekend, government and citizens will attempt to determine the cause – and assign blame.
So far, there have been suggestions that the runaway train that leveled downtown Lac-Megantic may have been caused by human error, or sabotage, or a mysterious fire. We have also heard, correctly, that transporting combustible materials at high speeds through populated areas is a probably a very bad idea, and that pipelines are less hazardous.
Given the immensity of the destruction in Lac-Megantic, however – and given the possibility that as many as four dozen people may have been killed when crude oil on board detonated – it is too soon to start guessing about what did, and what didn’t, cause the catastrophe. A sad procession of probes, inquests and commissions of inquiry will determine who, and what, is culpable. Rushing to judgment serves no one in Lac-Megantic.
But of the many railway disasters that have taken place in this country in recent years, we need not be so patient. In those thousands of documented cases, from coast to coast, one thing emerges – again and again – as a cause. It is cited a reason for hundreds of deaths, injuries and accidents, no matter who is in power, and no matter where the railway disasters take place.
Over the past two decades or so, government has systematically withdrawn from overseeing what happens on our 50,000 kilometres of rail tracks in Canada. The result has been death for citizens and railway workers, damage to the environment, and billions in lost property.
A definitive history of Canada’s rail safety regime, written by a brilliant lawyer named Wayne Benedict, concluded as much. “[Canada has a] need for effective regulation of railway safety to safeguard the interests of the public and society, the environment, railways and their personnel,” Benedict wrote the U.S.-based Transportation Law Journal in 2007.
“The deregulation of Canada’s railway safety regulatory regime…making the railway responsible for the management of its own safety…has not, and is not, adequately protecting the Canadian public.”
To prepare his study, Benedict examined hundreds of rail accidents over many years. In particular, he looked at the major rail catastrophes that preceded Lac-Megantic: the November 1979 Mississauga derailment, which led to the evacuation of a quarter of a million citizens from their homes; the February 1986 Hinton, Alberta collision, which saw 26 people killed, and nearly a hundred seriously injured; and the August 1996 Edson, Alberta crash that killed the crew, and caused millions in damage.
In each of these cases – and in hundreds of others he examined – Benedict grimly analyzed the official response to the rail tragedies. After Mississauga, the Grange Commission urged that government needed to start inspecting again, and not just leave it “entirely to the railways.” After Hinton, the Foisy Commission declared that the “regulatory environment within which the railway system operates…is inadequate.”
Concluded Benedict, now practicing law in Calgary: “Trains are fast, powerful, often carry explosive or deadly poisonous dangerous goods, mere metres from our homes and our children’s schools…Parliament must move to restore rail safety regulatory enforcement power. It is time for government to take back the safety obligations that have been granted to the railway industry.”
Oh, and before he became a respected lawyer?
Wayne Benedict was certified locomotive engineer.