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Lac-Mégantic: Thinking through the unthinkable

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Recently, in the wake of the terrible Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway runaway-train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a reader understandably questioned the accuracy of Railway Age Contributing Editor Frank Wilner’s statements with regard to the safety of moving crude by rail that appeared in his June 2013 Watching Washington column, “Rail’s role looks bright for crude oil market share” (p. 16).

Wilner’s statements—“Railroads . . . are reemerging as a decisive and safe transport partner . . .”; “. . . pipeline interests are asserting railroads are not a safe mode of transport, which is demonstrably incorrect.”; and “ . . . while spill accidents are rare for both modes, railroads are a safer choice”—are accurate. The timing of Wilner’s column, which was published several weeks before Lac-Mégantic, was unfortunate and unavoidable, but it doesn’t change the facts.

For example, in terms of spills per ton-mile, railroads spilled 2.2 gallons of oil per million ton-miles between 2002 and 2012, compared to 6.3 gallons for pipelines, according to the Association of American Railroads. In terms of tank car safety, much of the unit train fleet in service today has been built to AAR standards implemented in 2011. These standards include double hulls, energy-absorbing head (end) shields, recessed top valves, and shelf-type couplers that are less prone to detaching vertically (and thus puncturing a car) in a derailment. There is currently a 30-month backlog on crude-oil tank cars, which means that, over time, the fleet will be getting younger. It is not clear at this time if the tank cars in the MM&A train were of an older design.

The MM&A accident in Lac-Mégantic and the resulting loss of life is indeed horrific—indeed, virtually unthinkable. Based upon the preliminary information that has been gathered about the runaway train and the resulting derailment—much of which has been reported or has been the basis of commentary on this website—it was speculated that what was in the tank cars—in this case, crude oil—may not have been as important as many were led to believe, the reason being that crude oil by itself does not ignite or explode.

Is it reasonable to say that the train could have consisted of any commodity—coal, grain, chlorine, lumber, etc.?

Unfortunately, no. Some initial speculation said that propane gas in tank cars that were parked in a siding and were hit by the runaway (and even this was unclear, since it was not known at if such cars were loaded or empty) ignited and exploded. Another suggestion was that natural gas lines in buildings that were hit by the runaway when it derailed were damaged, and exploded. (This is what happened in Queens, N.Y., to an entire neighborhood that was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy and subsequently burned to the ground when natural gas pipes ruptured.)

The most recent information we have says that there were no propane cars involved, and the crude oil did explode on its own. How?

It is possible that fracking fluids, naptha, and diesel added to the crude oil to make it flow easier helped develop a vapor that ignited. Thus, investigators are now concentrating on an analysis of the oil.

While the investigation is ongoing and the exact cause of what triggered the tragic confluence of events in Lac-Mégantic will not be known for some time, it appears that human error—possibly a failure to properly tie the train down with the required number of handbrakes—or even vandalism, may have caused the runaway.

The AAR has weighed in on the safety questions that have inevitably surfaced. Responding to a July 8 Washington Post editorial, “Quebec disaster highlights the danger in moving oil by rail,” AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger wrote:

“The . . .  editorial continues to propagate the notion that the nation’s energy needs can be met only by pipelines or railroads, and that one mode of transportation is better than the other. The truth is that the nation needs both railroads and pipelines to transport crude oil safely and reliably, and each has a role to play in enhancing U.S. energy security. Furthermore, environmentalists’ claims that there should be no shipments of oil for the safety of the nation are unrealistic, and fighting the transport of fossil fuels is an untenable path to achieving the noble goal of 100% renewable energy.

“The events in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, this month were tragic, and the U.S. rail industry is closely following the investigation and what it reveals about the safe movement of crude oil. The accident notwithstanding, it remains true that hazardous materials accidents and spills from freight rail are exceedingly rare, with 99.997% of all hazardous materials shipments reaching their destination without a release caused by a train accident. In 2012, railroads set safety records, continuing a string of annual achievements reaching back decades. The freight rail industry remains focused on continually improving its safety record and ensuring that the goods we haul reach their destination securely.”

While these statements are factual and provable, I would exercise caution in making them. Certainly, our industry’s safety record is of no consolation to those in Lac-Mégantic who lost loved ones and also suffered the decimation of their downtown area. And knowing Ed Burkhardt (chief executive of Rail World, which owns and operates MM&A) as well as I do, I’m sure the accident has affected him deeply.

Following the accident, I received several calls from Canadian news media asking me to comment on Burkhardt, being that he is a prior Railway Age Railroader of the Year, and that we have written extensively about his company’s operations. (I was on vacation and was only able to field one call). I felt as though the reporter was trying to prod me into saying something negative. He seemed dissatisfied that I had nothing but good things to relate about an individual who has contributed a great deal to our industry, on a global scale, and who recently has focused his efforts on the professional development of young railroaders (the Michigan State University Railway Management Certificate Course program).

One published report pointed to the MM&A’s train accident rate, compared to the industry average: “In 2011, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic had a train accident rate of 10 accidents per million train-miles throughout the company’s network. . .. [T]he national average was 2.8. In 2012, MM&A’s rate was 34.7, compared to the national average of 2.3. The company has said that its rate is higher because it carries freight fewer miles than other carriers. The 2012 rate reflects two reportable accidents.”

As human beings, we look for ways to explain why things go awry, especially when the results are tragic. That’s understandable. But is the number-crunching about train accident rates valid, or even useful? Perhaps not, especially if it compares apples to oranges (i.e. a Class I to a short line). But the public loves numbers and statistics, even if it doesn’t fully understand them. And rest assured, these events will be politicized—Congressional hearings, accusations of lax safety standards, calls for more regulatory oversight, etc., etc. Some of it will be justified. Some of it won’t.

For me personally, would I, should I, speculate about Ed Burkhardt and his commitment to safe operations? Ain’t happening. Not now. Not ever. Even after Lac-Mégantic.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the events in Lac-Mégantic. As journalists covering the rail industry, we do our best to try to sort through everything, and accurately present what we know. Eventually, there will be some closure about what happened. For now, all we can do is watch, and wait, and keep those who have been impacted by this tragedy in our thoughts and prayers. That may not be a politically correct thing to say, but so what?

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