September 3, 2013

Lac-Megantic adds voices on crew size issue

Since a 1963 law, federal officials have let the railroad owners and unions settle the safety vs. money fight, but that may be changing.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Roughly two hours later, the small lakefront community became the site of Canada's worst rail disaster in nearly 150 years when the now-crewless train derailed in the heart of the town. Besides killing 47 people, the resulting explosions caused more than $200 million in damage.

Canadian investigators have yet to release many details. A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic official, however, has suggested publicly that the engineer failed to set enough hand brakes to hold the train after the locomotive's air brakes shut down when firefighters turned the engine off to battle a small fire.

James Stem, national legislative director with the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union, places the blame at the feet of company officials, however.

What happened in Lac-Megantic, Stem said, was the cumulative result of multiple "bad decisions" and safety shortcuts by managers determined to run a train with a one-man crew. Stem insisted that one person could not properly test the brakes and was unlikely to take the time to walk the length of the train -- in this case a mile in the dark -- to set all of the necessary backup hand brakes.

"The very nature of this business is you need two people to do what it takes to operate that train," Stem said in an interview. "Once the decision is made to try to operate with one person, you have to make other decisions" affecting safety.

Rail industry representatives caution against rushed policy changes before all of the factors in the Lac-Megantic incident are known.

"Obviously there are issues that are appropriate for us to address," Michael Rush with the Association of American Railroads, the trade group for major carriers, told a rail safety panel last week. "But really a key missing fact for all of us -- a set of facts -- is exactly what happened. And hopefully we will get that information eventually."

DETERMINING WHAT NEEDS FIXING

Statistics show that railroads are remarkably safe. The industry boasts that more than 99.9 percent of the 1.8 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped by rail in 2010 arrived at their destinations without incident. And the vast majority of those that didn't involved minor spills or mishaps that never make the news.

The problem for railroads is that when major accidents do happen, they can quickly rise to catastrophic levels. Less than one week after the deadly incident in Lac-Megantic, six people were killed in a derailment in France. About 10 days later, more than 70 died in a horrific derailment caught on video in Spain.

Train accidents happen for a bevy of reasons: rails split, car couplers fail, vehicles encroach on tracks, and beaver dams burst and wash out railroad beds. But human error is often a factor. And advocates for multiperson crews insist that more eyes can help detect and avert a human-caused disaster.

On Thursday, 50-plus members of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Railroad Safety Advisory Committee gathered in downtown Washington for the first-ever emergency meeting of the panel. The panel's sole topic was implications for crude oil and hazardous materials transport after Lac-Megantic.

The panel -- composed of representatives from railroads, unions and industries that depend on rail -- has been charged with recommending possible minimum crew size rules as well as additional restrictions on where and how rail companies can leave hazmat trains unattended.

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