Canada’s worst rail disaster since 1910 highlights a risk that has dogged railroads for more than a century: brake failures on runaway trains.
Rail safety consultants say securing two types of brakes -- air and hand -- would have averted the wreck in Quebec that killed as many as 50 people. An engineer failed to properly set the hand brakes on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train whose 72 cars rolled from a parking spot into downtown Lac-Megantic on July 6, according to the head of the railroad.
While braking technology has improved, the tools remain susceptible to human error and negligence, according to Mark Aldrich, author of “Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965.” One of the earliest major incidents occurred in 1883 in California, after would-be robbers tampered with the brakes on a stationary train, causing it to plummet down the tracks, killing about 20 people.
“There are endless wrecks because of bad brakes” combined with a failure of operator oversight, Aldrich said in a phone interview from Northampton, Massachusetts, where he’s a professor of economics at Smith College. “I’m sure that’s what they’re looking into in Quebec.”
Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., owner of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, laid the blame for the crash on his own engineer for failing to properly apply hand brakes on the rail cars. The company’s inspection indicated the brakes were applied on the locomotives, though not on the rail cars, Burkhardt told reporters yesterday.
Guy Farrell, a United Steelworkers union official, identified the engineer as Tom Harding of Farnham, Quebec. Farrell said Harding has been suspended with pay. Calls to a Tom Harding in Farnham weren’t answered.
Many of the air brakes used on trains are based on the same design invented right after the American Civil War and rely on compression systems to stop cars. For those that are parked, backup hand brakes are applied manually by the operator, by tightening each chain that pulls the brake shoes against the wheel.
Police are investigating potential criminal acts or negligence in the crash, Surete du Quebec provincial police Inspector Michel Forget said at a press conference July 9, without providing further details. The train carrying crude oil incinerated about 30 buildings.
About 50 people, many of whom were at a bar near the train tracks, are “probably dead,” Forget said. Twenty bodies have been recovered, he said yesterday. If 50 people are confirmed dead, it would be the worst rail disaster in Canada since 1910 when a derailment in Spanish River, Ontario, killed 63 people.
Anyone working on a railroad would have known to apply hand brakes to stop a shut-down train from moving on its own, said Les Hinds, a safety consultant with the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants and Investigators who has investigated more than 5,600 rail incidents.
“There are hand brakes on each rail car, so they had the opportunity to protect that train to keep it from rolling,” said Hinds. Without brakes, the massive rail cars can catch the wind and start moving on their own, he said.
“Once that train rolls, it’s a free runner and there’s nobody going to stop that train until it either meets a grade in front of itself, or it derails,” Hinds said.
Regulations also specify engineers must apply sufficient hand brakes to pass a “push-pull” test that ensures parked trains don’t move, according to Luc Bourdon, director general of rail safety with Transport Canada. There’s no specific rules for the number and amount of hand brakes used, Bourdon said.
In the past 10 years through the end of April, as many as 893 accidents were reported to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration as being caused by human errors related to train brakes, according to the agency’s safety database. The most common brake-related accident cause was railroad employees failing to secure the hand brakes. The regulator requires accidents that meet a certain dollar amount threshold to be reported.
In 2012, 247 train derailments were caused by human actions, including the failure to properly secure the train and use equipment properly, up from 234 in 2011, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic has had accident rates that exceeded the national average in all except one of the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.
Over the last nine years, 33 percent of all train accidents in Canada involved a runaway train, according to data from TSB.
The Canadian rail industry has been deregulating since the late 1990s, according to Robert Smith, the national legislative director for Teamsters Canada Rail Conference in Ottawa. The nation’s Railway Safety Act enabled each company to determine its own rulebook, which is audited by Transport Canada, he said.
“With no regulations in Canada regarding security of trains, the risk obviously is at a higher level,” said Frank Wilner, a rail economist and author of a recent book about Amtrak, by e-mail.
Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, said the company will stop leaving locomotives unattended overnight. Burkhardt, 74, who supports an expected push to tighten regulation, yesterday said it’s “very questionable” whether the hand brakes were properly applied.
“I think they failed to set the brakes in the first place.”