OTTAWA – Transport Canada says there are no rules against leaving an unlocked, unmanned, running locomotive and its flammable cargo on a main rail line uphill from a populated centre.
Officials with the federal rail regulator say they are looking at the overall safety of the rail system after the devastation wrought on the weekend by a runaway 73-car train carrying crude oil east through Quebec.
The downtown of Lac-Megantic was flattened when an unattended train rolled in and exploded early Saturday, killing at least 15 people with another 35 missing and presumed dead.
“If anyone has contravened federal regulations, Transport Canada does not hesitate to take immediate steps to enforce those regulations,” Gerard McDonald, Transport Canada’s assistant deputy minister of safety and security, told a media briefing in Ottawa.
“I don’t mean to sound defensive, nor do I mean to belittle the tragic accident and its devastating impact on the community of Lac-Megantic, when I say there is nothing more important than the safety and protection of Canadians.”
However, during the course of an hour-long question and answer session with reporters, it became clear that federal rules do not cover a number of circumstances surrounding the Quebec disaster.
Departmental officials also flatly contradicted repeated assertions by Transport Minister Denis Lebel that Transport Canada inspectors had given the train’s locomotives a clean bill of health the day before the crash.
Officials said the train’s 73 tank cars from North Dakota were inspected in the yard, but only after being dropped off by Canadian Pacific and before being coupled to locomotives of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic.
More details also emerged about the troubling circumstances of a train operated by a single crew member and left unattended on a grade above a community of about 6,000 townspeople.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the train’s owner, successfully applied to Transport Canada last year to have just a single operator on the line.
There are no rules against one-person crews, said Luc Bourdon, the department’s director general for rail safety.
“If it’s done according to our regulatory regime, we’ve got no issues with that,” said Bourdon.
Bourdon also said it is rare — but not against the rules — to leave a train unattended on a main line.
And he added: “We have no requirement for locked doors in terms of regulation at this time.”
Trains can be left on a grade, as long as they are properly braked, said officials.
Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of MM&A Railway, told CBC the accident has revealed things that obviously should be done differently.
“I think we followed normal industry practice, but the question is, is that normal industry practice adequate in today’s circumstances, particularly when you’re handling trains of flammable materials like oil?” Burkhardt said in an interview with the public broadcaster.
“I think there is going to be a number of changes in the rail industry overall as a result of what occurred here and I hope that we’ll be at the forefront.”
The Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, reported Tuesday that the tank cars all appeared to be an older DOT-111 model that has been criticized since the early 1990s for safety deficiencies.
“We’ve had a long record of advocating for further improvements to many of these 111s because they’re a very common type of tanker car,” said David Ross, an investigator with the safety board.
“When you take very large volumes of petroleum products, like in this case, everyone sees the damage that was caused here.”
Industry insiders say a single train can carry between 60,000 and 80,000 barrels of oil, and shipping four or five trains per day is possible.
That means a single rail carrier can essentially replicate the 400,000 barrels per day of a major pipeline — with the added flexibility of being able to send that crude oil in any number of directions where demand and refinery capacity is greatest.
The fire chief of Nantes, a community near Lac-Megantic, has questioned the safety of huge trains of crude oil.
Patrick Lambert, whose force responded to a locomotive fire on the train in question just before it set loose, has publicly urged rail companies to leave other cargo, or empty boxcars, between tankers to help limit the “explosive” domino effect.
Transport Canada says there are no rules regulating the number of tanker cars of crude oil any one train may move.
Marie-France Dagenais, the department’s director general for the transport of dangerous goods, said the Lac-Megantic cars were “general service tank cars” with a single hull of normal thickness.
“There are some new tank cars that are being looked at, but in terms of flammable liquids we are not looking into increasing the means-of-containment-safety aspect of this,” said Dagenais.
She added that a risk assessment was done with “our American counterparts” and that “it was determined that this was a good means of containment to transport that type of commodity.”
The American Petroleum Institute held a conference call with reporters Tuesday during which official Cindy Schild called Lac-Megantic “a tragic incident and we certainly sympathize for all and any losses there.”
But Schild added that the oil industry doesn’t have any overriding concerns about the safety of rail cars despite the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations last year that the DOT-111 cars, used to haul almost 70 per cent of oil in the United States, should be retrofitted and strengthened.
“We have felt that the current standards for car design are adequate under normal operating conditions,” Schild said.
Transport Canada reiterated that position.
“As far as shipping combustible material in these containers, it’s allowed at this present time,” said McDonald, the assistant deputy minister.