July 18, 2013

NEWS: Railroading Our Safety

It was pure coincidence: At the time of the Lac-Megantic rail-car explosion, I was reading an essay called The Future of the Railway. The next day, I was speaking to an 85-year old man at a bus stop. He was from Lac-Megantic, knew the citizens of the town well, and was eager to discuss the tragedy. It's a small world, after all.

Everything I've been able to read about the rail-car explosion incident to date has focused on the probability of human error. When you sift through all the details, though, the bigger picture emerges:

- The trail leads back to Rail World Inc., a Chicago-based conglomerate whose main purpose is, according to Wikipedia, the privatization of railway services. CEO Burkhardt (under fire for an incredibly slow and callous response to the tragedy) founded the company in 1999. One of its divisions is the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.
- Burkhardt was quick to point the finger at the sole engineer responsible for the runaway train. A former engineer who left the company because he did not agree with its safety policies, stepped forward to say that having ONLY one man responsible for the safety of 72 cars filled with a flammable substance is irresponsible at best.
- Rail World admits that the practice of having one only operator is a new one. (And of course, paying one man is a lot cheaper than paying two.)
- There was a lot of discussion about the rail-cars sitting on a hill, something about cars being decoupled, etc., but as the information gets sifted, it seems to be more about the hand-brakes, a fire that happened just prior to the incident, and the technology surrounding the brakes (as in, the fire might have triggered an automated response that wasn't anticipated).
- In 2001, CP sold off its mining, shipping, hotels and other businesses to focus on its railways. One of the improvements made was longer trains...up to 4,270 metres, or roughly 14,000 feet.
- Longer trains equate to more efficiency, and more efficiency means better profitability. If you can carry more cargo on each trip with the same manpower, you spend less to make more.
- Why was the train carrying so much flammable oil? Because pipelines are more expensive. US oil shipments by train are up 50% from last year alone. This means CP has been successful in its bid for more business, but it also means that this dangerous cargo is heading through our populated areas more and more.
- It appears to be a combination of tricky technology, putting a priority on profitability, and a disregard for employees that created this tragedy.

So what's the big picture?
1. We have people with POWER who do not listen to their employees when it comes to safety.
2. We have people who know what they're doing but are POWERLESS because nobody's listening.
3. And we have PEOPLE who are scared of what's going on around them, because of #1 and #2.

This may be an isolated incident, but it's not an isolated scenario. And as long as we put profit before people (or allow companies to do so), it will only get worse.


  1. Comments left by readers of this post included the following:
    - "This is all so typical of big business today, profits before people or safety."
    - "Good read. Thanks for sending it."
    - "Good read."
    - "I agree!"

  2. Good article! I still cannot believe 42 people are dead... can you imagine just living your life you and me, out celebrating on a beautiful summer's night or just being at home and suddenly you are surrounded by a fire you cannot escape... those poor poor people...

  3. Kind of puts a docked cruise ship in perspective! Thanks, Lorri! Candy


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