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Lac-Mégantic's horrific runaway train disaster

Do we have the right risk-benefit balance?

The song begins: “The runaway train came down the track and she blew”.

But in this tragic case, in the early hours of Saturday, July 6, the runaway freight train derailed and blew up, bringing death and devastation to the heart of a lovely town, breaking the hearts of its citizens, touching those of sympathetic people worldwide, and pouring toxic chemicals into the air, onto the ground and into the nearby river which provides drinking water for downstream towns.

While the people of Lac-Mégantic grieve, care for each other, and courageously set about rebuilding their community and their town, the big question in the minds of Canadians is not just “how did this happen?”, but “how, in this age of technological sophistication and years of experience in running railways, could anything like this come close to happening without criminal intent and action or negligence?”. It is no wonder that a criminal investigation is being conducted.

“The engineer said the train must halt, he said it was all the fireman's fault”

The blame game started immediately, but it is wise to wait for the results of the investigation and a proper assessment of the cause or contributing causes before pointing to any fault. Did one person ignore safe operating procedure, or did a situation arise which had not been anticipated and planned for in standard operating procedures? Will particular regulatory changes be needed to reduce the risk of this kind of incident?

Meanwhile, a possible link with an engine fire and the engine being turned off by firefighters had been suggested. Later, the chairman of the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway speculated openly that, since the only way for a parked train to begin rolling is if sufficient cars have not had their manual brakes applied, it must be that the engineer did not do his job. But Ed Burkhardt was not wise to get into that kind of discussion when he arrived in Lac-Mégantic several days late. There were already too many there ready to blame the running of his lean, mean railway.

In the political game, Conservatives are claiming that the government has been active and effective in bolstering the safety of rail transport, characteristically for them they boast of more severe punishments for safety infringements. They then point out that the rail accident rate has declined in recent years, even though oil and other hazardous material transport by rail has gone up. Finally they avoid further comment by saying they must wait for the results of the investigation of this incident.

The NDP are playing to a common emotional response to such catastrophic accidents: a need to to believe it did not have to happen, and would not have happened if government had been doing its job.

The Liberals have chosen to avoid discussing possible causes by noting that the priority right now is to give our support to the people of Lac-Mégantic. They concur with the Conservatives that all else must await the results of the investigation. As a party which champions the concept of evidence-based policy decisions, the Liberals have to accept the railways' generally improved accident statistics (although injuries are up) and be ready to go on the attack only if specific evidence suggests that government action or inaction contributed to the disaster.

But while the event is holding people's interest, I think it is timely to discuss the regulation of rail transport safety and related matters. One criticism of the federal government is that it puts too much reliance on self regulation by the industry. But as long as there is oversight and an open conversation on safety between the industry and government, there is nothing inherently wrong with relying on the industry to regulate its own operations in order to achieve acceptable standards of performance. Accidents are not good for an industry nor for its shareholders, and disasters like this are to be avoided at all costs.

Well, perhaps that was the wrong turn of phrase. There is the cost of business, and then there is the cost which would put one out of business. There is always a risk-benefit assessment. A company will consider the risks to its profitability and survival. The assessment will include an acceptable liability risk in case some performance standards are not always met.

But the government has to make a different risk-benefit assessment. There is some overlap, of course, because some citizens benefit financially from the company's business through direct or indirect employment, and through more affordable products or services. But the government has to consider all citizens, the needs of this and future generations, and care for the environment and other species. This is a much more complicated risk-benefit assessment, and that is why government regulation of some kind is usually necessary, and needs to be reviewed and improved frequently.

In any formula for broad risk assessment of the kind a government must deal with one needs ways to weigh values of quite different types of thing: material things, be they manufactured or natural, experiences and opportunities. Our antiquated economic theory largely ignores most things in life which are valuable to individuals and to the human race, so evidence-based policy making is usually mixed with a large helping of subjective evaluation. And it is clear that any political party which focuses entirely on “the economy” in developing its policy will never achieve the kind of government we need (Harper, take note). And any political party which kids itself that its policy decisions are entirely supported by evidence will too easily be caught in a lie (Liberals, take note).

While the blame game is pointless until we believe all relevant facts have become available, and at worst it can lead to erroneous conclusions and bad decisions, it is not a bad thing that a large number of people are now thinking and asking pertinent questions about our expectations for the safe transport of hazardous materials, particularly by rail, how reasonable they are, and how they should be achieved. Just because there has been a reduction in railway accidents in recent years, it is not necessarily the result of the best, most robust and foresighted management and government initiatives. We can expect that some of the minds now engaged on this matter will likely present better suggestions, and the population, more educated in these issues because of the recent disaster, will be more able to appreciate and support some of them. This process does not need the results of the Lac-Mégantic incident, so Conservatives and Liberals should not try to duck out of it.

What we need is for the media to stop stirring up rumour, anxiety, anger, and ignorant opinion, stop giving so much time to political spin and point-scoring, and instead help raise the level of knowledge and intelligent debate on this topic (and others). More of them should more often realize a duty, beyond profit, to support the dissemination of well-researched information and encourage critical analysis, both of which are essential for democracy, instead of presenting politics and opinion as a kind of dumb sport entertainment.

Finally, I suspect, based on what we have heard already about the railway infrastructure, equipment and practices in these few days since the disaster, that we will be learning much more from investigators, industry experts, members of government and observers of society and politics about the way the risk-benefit analysis applied to the movement of goods by rail has permitted slack operations and the extended use of outdated technology in order to keep transportation costs low for the benefit of industries, jobs and consumers. It will be up to us to decide if the rationale for the current system has been flawed, if some values have been neglected, and if regulatory changes are needed.


What shocked me most in the reports of the runaway train tragedy was that anyone would think it alright to leave a train of full oil tankers on a line overnight without anyone on duty performing the role of security guard. I soon realized after a quick search for information that there is an abundance of sites in North America where oil or gas are stored without any security. But then, of course, how does one provide security along thousands of kilometres of oil pipeline? Our Canadian National Energy Board has only this solution:
Ask the public to let authorities know if they see suspicious activity around the facilities in their neighbourhood.

It would be reassuring to know that there are some more constant and comprehensive ways to monitor and provide tank and pipeline security.