Clickbait Journalism at The New York Times

Written by David Nahass, Financial Editor
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The aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic derailment in July 2013. Photo courtesy of CBC News.

FINANCIAL EDGE, AUGUST 2019: With a 100-plus-degree F temperature and/or heat index blanket covering half the U.S., the summer doldrums are fully upon us. The time of year lines up with the anniversary of one of the most horrible rail tragedies in recent memory—the Lac-Mégantic derailment in July 2013. The 47 deaths that occurred as a result of that accident are unrecoverable losses for families and communities. Their memory should always serve as a reminder of the importance of safety and the need for best practices throughout the railroad industry.

Since the 2013 disaster, the railroad industry has made great strides toward improving safety measures and railcar designs that, when followed, allow railroad operations at a high safety level. Car design strengthening (to the current DOT 117J and 117R standards), PTC and HHFT train speed guidelines all contribute to running a safer rail system. The reality is that until, a la Back to the Future III (don’t act like you’ve never seen it), there are trains that don’t need to be on the track to operate, there are going to be some sort of derailments.

The perception of progress on the rail safety front is not universally perceived. The New York Times published an article on July 16, 2019 (“A Runaway Train Explosion Killed 47, but Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails”), following up on Lac-Mégantic and the safety issues raised at the time of the accident. The main takeaways are that few changes have been made to railway safety, those changes which have been made are unproven and that the industry is not doing nearly enough to support a safer railroad.

Six years later, the article sadly exhumes and retreads the memories of those lost and the pain of those who suffered trauma in order to generate readership (the term d’art for that is “clickbait”). That is an editorial issue.

For North American rail, however, that is not the point. The Lac-Mégantic disaster was a confluence of events that generated a horrible result: An insufficient number of hand brakes applied on the freight cars on a steep track grade, a fire in the lead locomotive and the post-fire shutting down of the lead locomotive killing power to the airbrakes. That series of events resulted in devastating destruction in a populated area.

Avoidable death is a tragedy no one should have to bear. Nonetheless, serious accidents such as Lac-Mégantic (2013), Amtrak’s accident in DuPont, Wash. (2017), or the Metro-North accidents in Valhalla (2015) and Sputyen Duyvil, N.Y. (2013) should not stigmatize a system. No one has called for passenger rail right-of-way to move out of town centers. They call for better training, safety and technology.

Quebec has allocated $100 million to move the rail line north of the city. It is a four-year project. This goodwill to a community devastated by tragedy makes complete sense. Additionally, the moving of the rail spur makes the point crystal clear. Rail is needed for communities, commerce and survival. It would be wonderful for every community to receive $100 million to install a work-around and move rail traffic out of the centers of towns. Citizens and railroad executives would support the change. Communities were built around railroad hubs in the U.S. before automobiles and superhighways. It would be great in hindsight to say “wouldn’t it be nice if…”

However, railroad track does not spontaneously appear, and looking at the efforts to prevent pipeline expansion (the most viable alternative for moving crude other than by rail) suggests that NIMBY opposition could easily prevent dedicated freight rail corridors outside of urban or suburban centers (that could be operated at higher speeds), even if the economics could work.

The focus of safety and prevention needs to be training and technology. The Times article falls into a common trap: Under the veil of emotional distress, it misdirects the focus onto policy and statistics. It cites an increasing number of runaway trains without hearing from the CN or Canadian Pacific about their focus on decreasing those incidents. It focuses on the number of crewmen in a locomotive without noting the FRA’s May 2019 announcement: “Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) determined that there is no safety rationale for a rule requiring two persons in the cab of every locomotive and any laws regarding crew size are pre-empted.

Worse still, it highlights deregulation as a possible cause for the tragedy, completely ignoring a long-standing post-deregulation history of improving safety on the rails.

Tragedy happens everywhere—on the roads, on the water, in the air. Lac-Mégantic was a terrible event. The proper lesson to learn is that applying technology and providing training is a pathway to improved safety. Media stories that report positive change don’t sell, but North American rail deserves far more respect than that.

Financial Editor David Nahass is an authority on all areas of railroad equipment finance and leasing. Nahass writes our monthly Financial Edge column and produces our annual Railroad Financial Desk Book and Guide to Equipment Leasing. He is President of Railroad Financial Corp., a financial advisory firm. He also serves as Chairman of Rail Equipment Finance, an annual industry conference addressing critical developments concerning North America’s railcar and locomotive fleet.