The investigation into the rail explosion that killed 15 in Quebec accelerated as police said a possible criminal act or negligence may be involved and firefighters rejected a railroad executive’s suggestion that they may have inadvertently caused the disaster.
The death toll was raised to 15 from 13 yesterday, Surete du Quebec provincial police Chief Inspector Michel Forget told reporters today.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train carrying 72 carloads of crude crashed early Saturday near the center of Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal. About 50 people are either still missing or confirmed dead, police said. It’s the country’s most lethal rail disaster since a collision between a Canadian National Railway freight train and a VIA Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alberta killed 23 people in February 1986.
“There are pieces that might lead us to believe that there are certain facts that might come to criminal acts,” Michel Forget said at a televised press conference in Lac-Megantic, Quebec today. “Criminal negligence might be one of the leads that we are looking at. Certain others, also. We are not at the stage of an arrest right now.”
Police and rail safety authorities are investigating how the unmanned train moved from its parking spot outside the neighboring town of Nantes before barreling into Lac-Megantic, incinerating about 30 buildings in the heart of downtown.
Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert denied his team did anything wrong after Edward Burkhardt, president and chief executive officer of closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago, which owns Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, raised questions about firefighters actions after a fire broke out on the train about two hours before the explosions.
“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” Lambert said on CBC TV yesterday. Municipal employees, including firefighters, have been asked not to speak to media, said a spokeswoman today for Nantes municipal civil security, who declined to give her name.
Burkhardt, who is also chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said today that the Nantes firefighters responding to a fire on the parked train’s lead locomotive may have switched off the engine, causing the air brakes to release, after the engineer secured it and left for the night. He made similar comments yesterday to CBC TV.
Burkhardt is accepting police protection for a visit to Lac-Megantic, after receiving death threats, he said in an interview in Rail World’s offices in Rosemont, Illinois.
Investigators will examine the design of the 111-class cars carrying the crude oil, as well as the operator’s procedures, and whether the train should have been parked where it was, Donald Ross, lead investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board, said today.
“There’s a number of operational issues, including the operation of the train, the requirements and company policies regarding securement of trains,” Ross told reporters in Lac-Megantic. It’s too early to assess whether stronger cars would have prevented the explosion, he said.
Forget added in the past day, two officers had to be removed from the accident site after becoming ill.
The Quebec coroner’s office asked families to bring hats, razors, toothbrushes and hairbrushes to help with the identification of the bodies using hair samples.
“It’s going to be a challenge to make positive identifications because the fire was so intense,” Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman for the Quebec coroner’s office, said by phone from the town last night. “We are only at the beginning of the investigation. We are spending all our time looking for bodies at the site.”
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic said in a July 7 statement that the train was shut down after the engineer left for the evening, which “may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place.” The company earlier said the train had been tied down by the engineer before he left as part of a crew change.
While Montreal Maine & Atlantic has followed industry-standard practices in leaving locomotives running overnight with no engineer or conductor on board, the railroad will stop that practice in the wake of the accident, Burkhardt, 74, said today. If a train needs to be parked while awaiting a crew change, “we will have a watchman or somebody on it,” he said in the interview.
The number of railway accidents in Canada increased to 439 in the first five months of the year, up 7.9 percent from 2012, largely due to derailments, according to data provided by the Transportation Safety Board. Accidents involving dangerous goods rose to 57 in the first five months of the year from 48 a year earlier.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s main opposition New Democratic Party, criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for cutting spending on rail safety.
“We’re seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail,” Mulcair told reporters July 7. “There are attendant dangers involved in that, and at the same time the Conservative government is cutting transport safety in Canada, cutting back the budgets in that area.”
According to estimates of departmental spending plans, Canada has forecast C$33.8 million in spending on rail safety for the fiscal year that began April 1, down from C$36.9 million the previous fiscal year.
“Our government has not cut any inspectors,” Denis Lebel, Canada’s Minister of Transport, said yesterday in a media briefing in Lac-Megantic, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We have taken concrete action to increase rail safety. In fact, we have invested over C$100 million in rail safety since 2009.” The government toughened penalties for rule-breakers while railway companies are required by law to ensure the safe operations of their trains, Lebel said.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic underwent “regular” inspections, Gerard McDonald, assistant deputy minister for safety and security at Transport Canada told reporters today at a briefing in Ottawa.
Regulators have inspected 514 miles of the company’s tracks, 37 crossings and 20 locomotives over the past year, Luc Bourdon, director general for rail safety at Transport Canada, said at the same briefing. Leaving a train unattended didn’t violate rules, he said.
It’s “ridiculous” to blame the firefighters, as turning off an engine doesn’t release the air breaks, according to Robert Halstead, who conducts forensic analysis to identify what causes train-related accidents. An engineer reduces pressure to apply the brakes, and the engine is “completely irrelevant” in doing that, he said.
“The cardinal rule in railroading is that you should never ever trust air brakes to hold a standing train long-term,” Halstead, president and chief executive officer of IronWood Technologies Inc. in Syracuse, New York, said by phone. “The principal thing would be to apply the hand brakes, and enough hand brakes to hold the train on the ground that it’s stopped on.”
Halstead said it appears that either the hand brakes were not applied at all, or an insufficient number of hand brakes were applied to hold the train. Ross of the Transportation Safety Board said the use of hand brakes is part of the investigation.