Insight: How a train ran away and devastated a Canadian town

Mon Jul 8, 2013 10:06pm EDT
 
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By P.J. Huffstutter and Richard Valdmanis

CHICAGO/LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - The short length of track, nestled in a dark pine and birch forest in Quebec, is a regular overnight stop for freight trains hauling crude oil and other raw materials across North America.

Normally, before retiring for the night, the train operator sets the hand brakes and leaves one locomotive running to power the air brakes that help hold the train in place on the gently sloping track. The next morning, the operator or a relief engineer starts up the train and continues on their way.

Last weekend, the system failed. The locomotive caught fire, so firefighters shut off the engine to stop the flames from spreading. That slowly disengaged the air brakes, and the driverless train carrying 72 cars of crude oil rolled downhill into the scenic lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, derailing, exploding and leveling the town center.

At least 13 people were killed and some 37 are still missing, according to Canadian police. Few residents expect any of the missing to be found alive.

The catastrophe could force policymakers across North America to rethink the practice of shipping crude by rail - a century-old business that has boomed with the surge in shale oil production.

Based on Reuters interviews with witnesses, fire services and the head of the train company, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), a tale emerges of how the brakes on a train parked on a slope were released leading to tragedy.

The accounts also frame the critical questions that investigators will be asking over the next few days and weeks. In particular, whether there was clear communication between the firefighters and the train operator, and whether anyone in authority saw the train start to roll down the hill before it picked up momentum and crashed into the town.

According to MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt, the train operator was an experienced Canadian engineer who had parked the train in the small town of Nantes at a siding, a short length of track where trains make overnight stops. The siding is about 7 miles from Lac-Megantic.   Continued...

 
The remains of a burnt train are seen in Lac Megantic, July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger