July 9, 2013

Time to let the media in to Lac-Mégantic

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:46

In Maclean’s, Paul Wells makes a strong case that it’s high time to let the media in to the disaster area of downtown Lac-Mégantic so they can do their job:

It was when I saw that Justin Trudeau had toured the Lac-Mégantic disaster site that I started to think something is seriously screwy about this whole situation.

I take seriously the sincerity of every politician arriving at Lac-Mégantic to tour the site of Saturday’s early-morning train derailment, and I note that it is starting to be a long list. I stand to be corrected on this chronology, but in very rough order it has included Premier Pauline Marois, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, several members of Marois’s cabinet, two members of Harper’s, and Trudeau. On Tuesday Olivia Chow and another NDP MP will add their names to the list of MPs, MNAs and other dignitaries who have walked through the zone where the devastation occurred and the lives were lost. I assume it has been a harrowing experience for all of them.

But to some extent I can only assume, because no journalist has been allowed to take the same walk the politicians have taken. I did a radio interview today, and the reporter said, “The Prime Minister said it’s like a war zone. What have you seen?” And I said, more or less, I’ve seen some Sûreté du Québec scrums, and the haunted eyes of a few lucky survivors.

Now. There are reasons reporters wouldn’t be allowed to see the accident zone, and reasons why politicians would. But the parade of the latter is starting to make the curtain drawn in front of the former seem faintly ridiculous. The accident zone was hot for days, although apparently not so hot that a succession of politicians couldn’t get close. There are other security concerns, though apparently not insurmountable (see: succession of politicians). And political figures are responsible for authorizing relief efforts. But that’s less true for opposition politicians, and a whole lot less so again when it comes to leaders of third parties.

CNN reports that the CEO of the parent company that owns the MMA claims the Lac-Mégantic train was tampered with before the runaway:

The driverless train that barreled into a small Quebec town and derailed, unleashing a deadly inferno that killed at least 13 people, may have had its brakes inadvertently disabled, the chairman of the company operating the train said Tuesday.

Firefighters in the nearby town of Nantes put out a blaze on the train hours before it rolled into Lac-Megantic. Ed Burkhardt, chief executive officer and president of Rail World, the parent company of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, told media outlets there’s evidence the engine powering the brakes was shut down at some point.

The matter needs further investigation, he told the Montreal Gazette. His company has begun an internal inquiry, he said.

“There are a number of missing pieces here,” Burkhardt told the paper, saying he didn’t suspect “the event was malicious or an act of terrorism.”

Pressed to elaborate by CNN affiliate CTV, Burkhardt wrote in an e-mail exchange, “We are now aware the firefighters shut down the locomotive. By the time (Montreal, Maine & Atlantic) people found out, it was too late.”

It’s possible that the firefighters who were called to the scene of the earlier (small) fire may have shut down the diesel engines as a precaution, not realizing that the engines were maintaining the air pressure in the brake system. If the engineer who went off-shift had not locked down enough of the hand brakes to hold the train on that grade, it would account for the train later running downhill towards Lac-Mégantic.

1 Comment

  1. “It’s possible that the firefighters who were called to the scene of the earlier (small) fire may have shut down the diesel engines as a precaution, not realizing that the engines were maintaining the air pressure in the brake system.”

    I’ve heard that in a couple of places, and I think it’s wrong.

    In pretty much every train built since Westinghouse built the first safety brakes in the late 1860s, taking air pressure OFF activates the brakes. You have to apply pressure to allow the train to move, in other words.

    It’s a lot more complicated than this – involving air reservoirs on each car, with connected pneumatic lines and various valves to allow for faster emergency braking – but it’s a fair description. With the manual brakes set on the cars, this train shouldn’t have moved at all.

    It’s really interesting that this is the second such incident in the same area in such a short time – I bet they’re frantically re-examining that other accident right now… especially since the railway has (supposedly) been picketed in recent weeks by various eco-activists, who promised “direct action.”

    Comment by cirby — July 9, 2013 @ 12:12

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