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Safety Board final report on Lac Mégantic disaster is sharply critical of railway regulation, but federal gov't unmoved

Lac Mégantic after the disaster, image from TSB report
Lac Mégantic after the disaster, image from TSB report

Canada's Transportation Safety Board issued a 181-page report on August 19 detailing the breakdown in application and enforcement of federal rail safety regulations that caused the deaths of 47 people in the oil train disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. (Read the 12-page executive summary here.)

The TSB report identified 18 distinct causes and contributing factors in which safety procedures and regulations failed or were not applied. These pertain to the operations and equipment of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the short-line company that was receiving crude oil trains from CP Rail south of Montreal and then running them through Quebec and Maine to Irving Oil in New Brunswick; the oil tanker cars that are used by railways across North America to transport oil; and lax procedures and enforcement by Transport Canada over railway operations in Canada.

The report is sharply critical of Transport Canada for failing to oversee the rail safety regime that it has modified and slackened over the years at the behest of successive federal governments. But Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has responded to the report by saying that the regulations in place are just fine and all that is needed to avoid more oil rail disasters is more rigorous application of the existing regulations.

"Today’s report does indeed talk about higher expectations for Transport Canada," Raitt told media following the report's release. "I share those expectations and I know the public shares those expectations as well, too."

"We need to remember that in terms of (rail) safety, the government puts the rules in place. The companies are expected to follow the rules. The company did not follow the rules."

But the TSB report speaks differently than Raitt's blame-the-company obfuscation. It said Transport Canada has failed to fulfill the vital mandate with which it is entrusted—ensuring rail safety. TSB chair Wendy Tadros told the press conference releasing her report, "Who then was in a position to check on this company, to make sure safety standards were being met? Who was the guardian of public safety?"

"That is the role of the government, to provide checks, balances and oversight. And yet this booming industry where unit trains were shipping more and more oil across Canada and across the border ran largely unchecked."

Tadros underscored the whole mess in saying, "MM&A really only had a safety management system on paper".

The TSB is deeply troubled that Transport Canada failed to act on concerns that it had identified in the MM&A's operations. "The problem is not just about the frequency of Transport Canada’s audits," Tadros said, "but also extended to a failure to follow up on issues that came up during the regulator’s routine inspections."

One specific example of MM&A maintenance negligence was examined by The Globe and Mail on Aug. 18. It detailed the poor condition and maintenance record of MM&A Locomotive 5017, the one left running on the night of July 6, 2013 in order to hold the train's air brakes. A fire broke out in the locomotive after it was stationed for the night, causing a release of the air brakes and setting the train on a ghost roll into the town.

Lawyers say MM&A employees are being scapegoated

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