07.09.2013 08:27 AM

In today’s Sun: re-regulate, now

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.

Deregulation.

Over the past two decades or so, government has systematically withdrawn from overseeing what happens on our 50,000 kilometres of rail tracks in Canada.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.

13 Comments

  1. Ed Frink says:

    Nobody learns from history, even those who study it, because they’re just words on printed paper after everybody who lived through it is dead. In the end, there is no substitute for experience.

    They got rid of Glass-Steagall in the 1990s thinking that they were better and smarter than those people back in the 1920s who caused the Great Depression. How much of the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the 2007 crash–well, the experts can comment on that. Even Newt Gingrich said that the repeal in hindsight was a mistake and it should be brought back.

    After nothing bad happens after a while, it is natural for everyone involved to feel a bit more confident and then lower their standards and not feel as vigilant.

    Regulations do increase the cost of doing business, there’s no way to get around that fact.

    There will be a lot of finger pointing from all sides (conservative economic philosophy will certainly take a hit), and of course, they’ll re-regulate. But in a few decades, they will de-regulate after nothing bad has happened.

  2. Una says:

    Thanks for that article. An important perspective.

  3. Stan Schmenge says:

    “I Like Trains”-Fred Eaglesmith

  4. Anne says:

    So how many people are worth the risk this year, Roland? What price is set on us per car loaded with explosives? is there a formula? How many commoners per rich guy profit margin?

  5. Ottawa Civil Servant says:

    How about they determine the cause of the accident, before stating the cure? Hmmm?

    This time it wasn`t Trudeau going off too soon, like he did after the Boston bombings. This time it was Mulcair saying something about the need for more regulation, while the rail cars were still flaming in the background.

    • po'd says:

      According to reports

      Train had one crew member who had worked 12 hrs, then left train unattended.
      Train carrying dangerous commodities was left on mainline with one Locomotive running.
      Trains air brakes were not applied.
      Brakes on one locomotive plus possibly a few hand brakes were supposed to keep train from moving.
      Train was uphill from town.
      Railway uses old locomotives (you can find a list on the net)
      Half of company’s locomotives equipped with remote control system (Bangor Daily News)
      No derailer was used.

      What could possibly go wrong?

  6. Hochelagonian tea sippin' luddite says:

    Seems that most of the derailments cited above (1979, 1986, 1996) happened before the current federal gang could swing a pen or cut a regulation.

    Which earlier (Pre-2007*) government’s de-regulations might somehow be seen as causal / responsible for the incidents cited above?

    From the article: “… 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 in the U.S.-based TRANSPORTATION LAW JOURNAL – 2007*. emphasis mine.

  7. Hochelagonian tea sippin' luddite says:

    About trains, derailments and the like . . . In “online only” correspondence Re: ‘They Won’t Find Anyone,’ – July 8, Hugh Phillips of Boucherville, Que. pens a challenging yet chilling note, with a sadly sobering conclusion.

    For details – see today’s Letters to the Editor, National Post.

  8. Joe says:

    For some weird reason I wonder what it is about people and their blind faith in regulations. A friend of mine is a safety officer for a large firm. In order to cut down on at work injuries they came up with a ‘double coverage’ policy. In other words if you were going to be cutting with a power saw you had to wear goggles and a full face shield. Failure to do so meant immediate termination. The policy was widely discussed and everyone signed a paper saying they were familiar with the new regulations. The very next day my friend found an employee cutting on a table saw. His goggles and face shield were sitting beside him not on his face. The employee was fired. At a camp in Northern BC there is a Zero tolerance for the consumption of alcohol and drugs. One of the long term employees who had been there for over a year showed up at the gate having more than one beer under his belt. He was fired. Tragic as this train wreck was I don’t believe more regulation would have prevented it. People are people and people do stupid things. Although regulation is generally a good thing it can not and will not keep people from making foolish decisions or acting in an uninformed manner. Did someone knowingly ignore company policy and government regulation and not set the brakes properly? Did someone unknowingly tamper with a system he was not familiar with in order to carry out his emergency plan? From what I have read it sounds like the train’s crew didn’t set enough hand brakes and let the idling engine keep the brakes on. The fireman unknowingly turned the brakes off when he shut off the fuel to the running engine because the engine was on fire. Did the crew and the fire department leave too soon assuming that the replacement crew was going to be there in a minute. In every instance there may already be a regulation in place but the people on the scene decided not to follow the rules. Using an old math analogy: If you have a million rules and regulations and zero compliance you have no rules. Making it a million and one rules won’t change a thing if there is zero compliance.

  9. davidray says:

    from the better late than never dep’t. my take on the tragedy. may the good citizens of Lac-Megantic hear our prayers in the weeks and years to come.
    http://dissentistan.blogspot.ca/

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