Insight: Quebec train set too few brakes, with deadly result

Wed Jul 10, 2013 10:06pm EDT
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By Joshua Schneyer and Cezary Podkul

(Reuters) - The handbrake is the railroad industry's ultimate fail-safe mechanism. It is supposed to help avert disasters like the one that engulfed a Canadian town on Saturday, when a runaway train loaded with oil hurtled downhill, derailed and exploded, leaving 50 people dead or missing.

The railroad initially blamed the catastrophe on the failure of the train's pneumatic airbrakes after an engine fire, but the company acknowledged on Wednesday that the train's engineer did not apply an adequate number of handbrakes to hold the train in place, and failed to comply with regulations.

A Reuters review of Canadian and U.S. regulations found that rail operators are given considerable leeway to decide how many handbrakes are sufficient for any given train, depending on track conditions and the weight of the cargo.

Operators are only required to apply enough of the handbrakes - one is found on every railcar - to ensure the train will not move even if other safety features, such as air brakes, falter.

The issue of handbrakes is likely to prove central to how blame is apportioned for the deadliest North American railroad disaster in at least two decades, experts said. The Canadian authorities have launched a criminal investigation, and Quebec police inspector Michel Forget has said criminal negligence is one lead they are looking into.

The question of whether enough of the train's handbrakes were used may affect the liability of the rail company - Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) - and could spur an overhaul in regulation. One key question is if fault can be linked to MMA's own handbrake practice, or to the lone engineer who operated the train, or to a regulatory code that gives rail operators too much slack, experts said.

MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt told Reuters the engineer failed to comply with Canadian regulations. "If it had been complied with, we wouldn't have had a runaway train," he said.

Burkhardt said he could not be certain how many handbrakes were set but the engineer told him that 11 had been applied before he left the train on Friday night for a sleep break.   Continued...

Burnt train cars are seen after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec July 8, 2013, in this picture provided by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Canada/Handout via Reuters