Fifth anniversary of Lac-Mégantic tragedy: Hold rail monopolies and governments accountable!

By Pierre Chénier

 July 6, 2018 marks the fifth anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, one of the worst train disasters in Canadian history. On the evening of March 5, the Mégantic community participated in a silent march that ended at the cemetery where many of the victims of the tragedy are buried. On the morning of June 6, a memorial mass was held, followed by the inauguration of the “Espace de mémoire,” a site for people to gather and discuss what they have experienced since that fateful night, as well as their future. The people of Mégantic have been fighting without letup since the tragedy of July 6, 2013 to rebuild their lives, which cannot be done without improved rail safety. Early in May, the federal and Quebec governments finally confirmed that a bypass track – one of the demands of the people of Lac Mégantic which the governments initially ignored – would be built so that dangerous goods will no longer be transported through the town’s downtown core. Rail communities affected by train derailments, which continue to occur regularly across Quebec, Canada and the United States, are greatly inspired by the steadfastness of the Lac-Mégantic community backed by the people of all of Quebec.

Five years ago, on July 5, a freight train comprised of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars unsuited for the type of crude oil they carried, was left unattended for the night in Nantes, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. At around 1:00 am on July 6, the train started to roll down the slope towards the town of Lac-Mégantic. Shortly after, 63 of the tanker cars derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, spilling their contents and causing a series of fires and explosions of catastrophic proportions. Forty-seven people were killed and many others were injured. Downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. The Chaudière River and the lake itself were heavily contaminated by the crude oil spill. Many of the town’s residents continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress related to the tragedy. (The destination was the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.)

Map of the approximate route travelled from North Dakota en route to Lac-Mégantic | Transportation Safety Board (Click to enlarge)

Lac-Mégantic disaster

A large number of trains carrying crude oil have derailed since the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, including in Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013; near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick in January 2014; and in Gogama, Northern Ontario in March 2015. They were all potential Lac-Mégantic disasters, with loss of life avoided only because the derailments took place a few kilometres away from a densely populated area.

Casselton, North Dakota

In a recent report on 2017 rail accidents in Canada, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) informed that in 2017, 1,091 rail accidents were reported to the TSB, a 21 per cent increase over the 2016 total of 900, and unchanged from the previous 10-year (2007-2016) average of 1,092. In 2017, 115 accidents involved dangerous goods, up from 101 in 2016 and below the 10-year average of 138. Four accidents resulted in a dangerous goods release in 2017, up from one in 2016, and consistent with the 10-year average.

In 2017 rail fatalities totalled 77, up from 66 reported in the prior year and comparable to the 10-year average of 76. The number of main-track accidents totalled 206 in 2017, up 18 per cent from 175 in 2016 and 9 per cent above the 10-year average of 190. The main-track accident rate in 2017 was 2.6 accidents per million main-track train-miles, up 12 per cent from 2.3 in 2016 and 7 per cent above the 10-year average of 2.4. Very disturbing also is the fact that occurrences of run-away trains has increased by 10 per cent in the last five years, most of them taking place in rail yards, with some also occurring outside of the yards, including one near Toronto in 2016, where a dangerously flammable liquid was part of the convoy.

The fact is that five years after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the dangers to human life, property and the environment are even more acute, due to the criminal negligence of the railway monopolies. They claim their overriding responsibility and most urgent task is to remain competitive with other carriers nationally and internationally at any cost, with the government irresponsibly refusing to hold them to account. They also claim more and more that the human factor is the cause of accidents and tragedies and that unless the process is 100 per cent mechanized, with no workers involved, rail safety will continue to deteriorate and be subjected to “human error.”

This propaganda which blames workers for accidents, criminalizes their behaviour and is used to promote justifications which eliminate vast numbers of workers from their workforces. These attacks actually reveal the anti-worker, anti-human outlook of the rail monopolies and governments who provide them with all the power to do as they please. The new technology cannot make the railways safer so long as the motive is private profit through the activation of the anti-human factor/anti-consciousness. For example, the increase in runaway trains coincides with the process of using inexperienced people equipped with remote control belt packs walking alongside trains to assemble and disassemble trains in yards. Instead, this work should be done by experienced locomotive engineers directing the operation from the locomotive itself.

Rail monopolies such as CP are now putting extreme pressure on their office employees to become locomotive engineers. It takes years of experience for workers to actually become responsible locomotive engineers. Office workers are now being called upon to participate in a training program with state-of-the-art simulators reflecting the different situations workers may find themselves in. Why not train the engineers in these state-of-the-art technologies? A prejudice is pushed against the older workers by claiming that the youth are better suited to these technologies but none of this explains why the development of new technologies are used to pit one section of workers against another, engage in union busting and lower the standard of living of all the workers and endanger the safety of the workers and the public. These mostly office workers are being trained and bullied into performing without the critical human factor of the organized support of their fellow workers and their unions. They report that they are very concerned that they are being forced to drive long and heavy trains at fast speeds, sometimes with dangerous goods on board, without proper human support. Workers report several near misses that could have been deadly, for themselves and the public, had an accident actually occurred.

Another example of the pressures on the workers is the fact that in the name of “safety” some of the rail monopolies in the U.S. are now using drones to spy on railway workers while they are working, which is most unsafe as workers are deprived of peace of mind and cannot focus on their work.

Meanwhile, as these things are happening, the governments at the federal and provincial levels refuse to take the necessary measures to restrict the ability of the rail monopolies to act in this reckless way and attack the human factor. The more the monopolies and the governments talk about the “sorrow” they feel over the rail tragedies and claim they are taking “measures,” the more such talk is directly contradicted by the dictate they are actually implementing. They place the private interests of the rail monopolies above society where they cannot be held to account except by a determined people organized for that purpose, as in Lac-Mégantic.

Lac-Mégantic was a tragic and profound eye-opener as to how the neo-liberal outlook and practice of placing all of society’s assets at the disposal of the global monopolies directly led to the self-regulation of the railways and to criminal negligence causing death and chaos, as well as joint attempts by the private owners and the government to blame the workers. The people of Lac-Mégantic did not accept that and persisted in pursuing immediate measures, which has culminated with the decision to have tracks that by-pass the town. It is through such practical politics that the highest standards of safety must be enforced in terms of working conditions, required personnel, maintenance and all other relevant aspects.

Banner demands that rail tracks bypass town as residents mark the third anniversary of the tragedy, July 10, 2016.

The private rail monopolies and governments in their service are endangering the lives of the workers, the rail communities and the public. It must not pass!

On this fifth anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, a warm salute to the Lac-Mégantic community and all those in Quebec who lost family and friends in that tragedy.

Source: TML Weekly, July 7, 2018 – No. 26

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