Citizen Action Essential to Ensure Rail Safety

TML Weekly: First of all, our best wishes to the people of Lac-Mégantic who are fighting so bravely to rebuild their lives, which cannot be done without improved rail safety. What was organized in the city for the seventh anniversary of the tragedy?

Robert Bellefleur: There were three press conferences. Of course, we held our own. The Alliance ferroviaire de l'Estrie et Montérégie, which includes the mayors of Mégantic, Sherbrooke, Bromont, Cowansville and Farnham, also held one, as did the city of Mégantic, which inaugurated the Espace mémoire, a structure dedicated to the 47 victims. It is located where the tragedy took place, on the very foundations of Musicafé. At noon, after the inauguration of the Espace mémoire, bells were rung 47 times in memory of the 47 victims of the tragedy.

TMLW: What are the challenges you are facing at this time in ensuring rail safety?

RB: We took another tour of the track and found new problems with the rails. A second formal notice was sent to Transport Canada to come and re-inspect the rails at the entrance and exit of Lac-Mégantic. On May 7, 2019, Transport Canada sent a report to Central Maine and Quebec Railway Canada (CMQR) noting 253 defective rails between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic. The company was to repair this. In August, it was discovered that a location specified in the report where the rails were defective had still not been repaired. We also produced a video showing the condition of the rails at that time.[1]

This was reported to Transport Canada and the media and two weeks later a train partially derailed at the same location. The wheels just left the track. After that, a formal notice was sent to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and a ministerial order was issued to force the company to make repairs. That was last year. This year, we are doing the same thing. We are sending a formal notice to Garneau, a second one, to tell him that you have not repaired everything. There's still some left. There's a lot left. We sent him the formal notice yesterday. He now has 10 days to do a new inspection that goes beyond the standard ultrasonic inspection. Ultrasound is a method that is not completely effective when the rails are too worn because the metal no longer conducts the waves properly.

According to an expert report on the seven major derailments of oil-carrying trains in Canada that have occurred since the Mégantic derailment, which was presented in a CBC report on June 15, the condition of the rails is responsible for the derailments. This is because the railway safety regulations on which the maintenance standards are based date back to 2012, that is, before the massive transportation of oil on the rails. The regulations are written based on the old practice of regular freight trains and have not been adjusted to the new reality of massive oil transportation. So the rails wear out faster with characteristic breakages due to the overweight trains. So the Transportation Safety Board of Canada made that observation and recommended that the railway safety regulations be reviewed because they no longer correspond to reality. These regulations govern the companies and define maintenance standards. Journalists have proven that these seven major derailments since Mégantic are due to the fact that maintenance protocols are not up to date and that the trains are heavier and longer. The CMQR boasted that the weight of its trains passing through Mégantic had increased by 56 per cent.

TMLW: At your press conference, you said that the hazardous materials currently in circulation are even more dangerous than those that exploded during the tragedy. Can you tell us more about that?

RB: During the BAPE [Office of Public Hearings on the Environment] meetings in Mégantic last year, the experts who were conducting a risk study told us that the two most dangerous materials circulating on the rails are propane gas and sulphuric acid. There is nothing worse than that. If ever there is a derailment followed by an explosion of these materials, the sulphuric acid will spray into the atmosphere as a vapour and the winds will push this up to 20 or 30 km. This is much more dangerous than the shale oil burning on site. It's ten times worse as an impact.

We see convoys of 30 tanks, where 10 to 12 cars contain propane gas and seven to eight cars contain sulphuric acid, transported by DOT-111 cars. Since the explosion at Lac-Mégantic, these cars can no longer transport oil, but they are now used to transport a product that is ten times more dangerous! We see this type of convoy three to four times a week and it runs on defective rails and culverts.

It should also be added that the trains are still parked at the top of the hill. Since there is no longer a rail yard in downtown Mégantic, the company is shunting in Nantes, at the same place where the death train was parked on July 6, 2013. It parks cars from the industrial park on the service track and when the train arrives from the United States with the dangerous material, they stop parallel to them on the main track, next to the cars to be loaded. They apply only air brakes on the slope, no hand brakes. And there they detach the four locomotives that will pick up the cars on the other track, leaving the whole train alone, on simple air brakes on the grade, from 45 minutes to one hour. That's how long it took, when the firemen left Nantes, for the train to go down the slope in 2013. These manoeuvres are carried out two to three times a week in Mégantic. We are in the same scenario. Nothing has really changed, except that the materials are 10 times more dangerous. I have reported this twice to the City of Mégantic and Transport Canada. We also see it in the video.

All this is tolerated by Transport Canada. Yesterday, July 5, Garneau broke his silence and issued a press release to defend himself, in which he said that there have been 225 inspections of the railway track between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic since 2015, that is 45 per year. I said in an interview that either the inspectors are blind or they are incompetent and inconsistent, which I doubt, or the rules are not strict enough and are too complacent toward the companies.

TMLW: Can you explain the status of the bypass track?

RB: It's stalled. What I have learned is that following the BAPE report in May 2019,  many questions were raised about the environment with regard to the route of the bypass as it crosses wetlands, which are protected in Quebec. The Quebec Ministry of the Environment expressed reservations on certain points and asked for clarification. And that is where it gets stuck. Transport Canada issued a ruling last year on the proposed expansion of the port of Quebec in Beauport Bay, where fish will spawn. The court ruled that Quebec has no business interfering in a federal jurisdiction. And now Transport Canada is using this ruling to say that it does not have to take into account the environmental concerns of the BAPE and the Quebec Department of the Environment.

In our opinion, the concerns raised about the environment must be treated seriously. We must consider that the bypass will cross rivers, streams, swamps and farmland. Ditches will be dug, wooden ties soaked in creosote will be installed in these ditches and it will flow into the Chaudière River.

The coalition's opinion is that this railroad could be built with concrete ties. Concrete has an environmental impact when you make it, but once it is placed in an environment, it is inert. Look at the REM [Metropolitan Express Network] in Montreal on the south shore, they used concrete ties. [REM is a light rail rapid transit system under construction in the Greater Montreal area -- TML Ed. Note] In Ontario, new railways are also built on these types of sleepers. And here we are still using the methods from the last century. It is important to know that wooden ties have an average life of 20 to 30 years, whereas concrete can last more than 50 years. Moreover, when the life of wooden ties is over, there are still toxic products in them, PAHs -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic. To dispose of them, you have to take them to a high-efficiency incinerator, so it costs a fortune to get rid of them.

All the pressure we're putting on is to say that the old railroad tracks are dangerous. We're not going to wait three years. They have to be forced to speed up the process of creating the bypass. We are told that it is planned for 2023.

TMLW: Do you want to say anything in conclusion ?

RB: In the absence of Transport Canada oversight, it is always the citizens who remain vigilant. It is citizen involvement and action that remains to ensure safety in the absence of Transport Canada's involvement. The authorities are ignoring safety, so it is the citizens who must see to it.

We continue the fight. They said the Mégantic people were resilient. We'll show them what resilience is!


1. To view the video Lac-Mégantic, a Railroad at the End of its Life click here.  To see a video on the reconstruction of Lac Mégantic on a modern basis click here.

(Photos: TML, Maine-Lewiston-Auburne ProtestTrain Safety)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 25 - July 11, 2020

Article Link:
Citizen Action Essential to Ensure Rail Safety >


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