Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Guy Miller

The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied
By Bruce Campbell
Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2018,
190 pages plus endnotes & index. $24.95 paper.

IN THE MIDDLE of The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster are 17 photos. Three of these photos tell a graphic story of what happened to that town one July night in 2013.

The first photo is of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on what looks to be a warm summer evening not unlike the fatal evening of July 5-6, 2013. The street lamps, stores and bars paint a warm, inviting picture suitable for a brochure meant to lure tourists, or a charming postcard sent to envious families back home.

The Café-Musi, located just 55 feet from the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) mainline, was celebrating the reunion of two musicians who were local legends. At 11 pm the place was still packed, but by 1:00 am only  hard-core music lovers were left when the band paused for a break between sets. The music would never resume. At 1:14 am, catastrophe struck.

The second photo is of a mushroom cloud. It rose over where downtown Lac-Mégantic used to be. It rose over 300 feet and could be seen from miles around. The third photo of downtown Lac-Megantic resembles Dresden in February 1945 more than a cozy mecca for would-be visitors.

A runaway train with defective brakes, parked at the top of a hill by an overworked and exhausted engineer, had rolled into town, derailed and exploded, incinerating the town center, killing 47 residents and spilling tons of toxic fuel into the lake.

I do not have the words to describe the horror of the next hours and the affect it had on survivors. A new TV series called “Mégantic” promises to do so:

“The series goes beyond what anyone has seen or heard in the media. It takes a deeply human look at this tragedy that shook Quebec, Canada and the world. Each episode follows the destinies of Méganticois marked by grief and trauma, but also by solidarity, courage and heroism.” (http// megantic)

The Price of Greed

What is to blame for the Lac-Mégantic disaster? The short answer is greed. The long answer is what Bruce Campbell’s book is all about. Campbell is the author of three major reports and a number of media commentaries on the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. For his work on Lac-Mégantic, Campbell was awarded a Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship.

Although the names are different, the four-decade long project of neoliberal assault on the health and well-being of working people runs parallel between Canada and the United States, and for that matter the entire capitalist world.

Campbell starts his story with the nine years of Conservative Brian Mulroney as Canada’s Prime Minister. Between the years of 1984 and 1993, Mulroney was able to splice the virus of deregulation into the DNA of Canadian politics. Once there, big business lobbyists, rightwing think tanks and the corporate media conspired to keep it there.

Whether Conservative or Liberal, or in the United States Democrat or Republican, deregulation was now part of the new orthodoxy.

By 1995, the Liberal Party politician Paul Martin was the new Prime Minister. Martin’s budget of that year included a 50 percent reduction in funding for Transport Canada, responsible for all the country’s transport related Acts, politics, regulations and programs.

The year 1995 was also when the Canadian National Railroad (CN) was privatized. With the figleaf of public accountability gone, the CN was free to join the Canadian Pacific (CP) in the headlong pursuit of profit.

Both railroads joined in ripping up the Ottawa Valley Line. This meant that the only option left for shippers was going through heavily populated southern Quebec. This move helped point the bull’s eye directly at Lac-Megantic.

Deregulation does not mean No Regulation, and for those remaining regulations there is another ally of big business — Regulatory Capture.

The metaphor of “revolving door” is often used to describe this phenomenon. The door spins from corporate lobbyist to government position to company executive, or some variation of this trajectory.

Campbell offers several examples of this fox-guarding-the-hen house gambit by the Canadian railroads. “Harper era Minister of Transportation John Baird was appointed to a lucrative spot on the board of the CP. [Stephen Harper was the rightwing prime minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015.] Senior Transport Canada officials Bill Rowat and Cliff MacKay moved from government to President and CFO, respectively, of the Railroad Association of Canada” (the railroad industry lobby group).

Now that deregulation and regulatory capture set the table, it was time to bring in the gluttonous diners to gorge themselves. First to pull up a seat was Paul Tellier, Mulroney’s point man in the privatization of CN.

In the first three years of the CN being relieved of public responsibility, the company’s profit margin soared to new heights. Shareholders watched while the stock price tripled, while, ten thousand workers watched from home after being terminated.

Once a national Canadian public asset, U.S. investors soon controlled the majority of CN stock. Part of the transition of the CN from public good to private cash-cow was the selloff of less profitable branch lines to small, mostly U.S. short-line operators.

One of these short lines was the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad, (MMA), destroyer of Lac-Megantic.

Culture of Intimidation

Paul Tellier’s tenure brought two key diners to the banquet: E. Hunter Harrison and Edward Burkhardt. Harrison’s role in the Lac-Megantic tragedy was indirect, but as the father of the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), the now industry-wide norm that elevates profits uber alles, Harrison made his contribution to the disaster.

Campbell defines PSR in simple terms “… run fewer and longer trains, eliminate unprofitable (or less profitable) lines, reduce head counts.”

Less tangible but equally real was the culture of intimidation that Harrison brought with him wherever he went. The number of grievances skyrocketed when he took over CN, at a rate five times higher than that of the comparable CP.  His thinking was: if the unions are tied up with old complaints, there would be less time for new ones.

He also hosted weekend retreats for “promising” employees that became known as “Hunter Camps.” At these camps, future Harrison sycophants were schooled in “PSR Thought.” His camp talks were collected into a book, How We Work and Why: Running a Precision Railroad. Harrison made sure every employee received a copy.

As principal stock holder of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, Edward Burkhardt played a more direct role, perhaps even a starring role, in what happened at Lac-Megantic.

Privates in the army rarely see generals — I may have seen four during three years in the U.S. Army — and grunts on the railroad rarely see Vice Presidents. Ed Burkhardt was different. During the middle 1980s, he was the Chicago and Northwestern (CNW) Vice President of Operations. I learned to recognize him by sight.

Burkhart made regular appearances in the half a dozen Chicago area CNW yards. His modus operandi was simple: stand and watch and watch. He never introduced himself, never asked a question, never changed expressions. Campbell writes of Burkhardt that “he may have been a legend in some quarters, but in others he was the devil incarnate.”

The Single Employee Crew was Burkhardt’s great fixation. After leaving CNW he became CEO of the Wisconsin Central (WC). Thanks to the deregulation resulting from the 1980 Staggers Act, the Soo Line was able to sell off much of its Wisconsin holdings.

Burkhardt tried desperately to implement “engineers only” on the WC. Unions and the state government joined forces to stop him. John Dobyns, a Wisconsin State Congressman described Burkhardt [“Fast Eddy”] this way, “Burkhardt doesn’t care about public safety. He thinks only of profits.”

Dobyns’ words were borne out when a WC train carrying liquid petroleum gas and propane derailed and exploded in Weyauwega, WI in 1996. Three thousand residents were evacuated and $20 million in damages resulted. The National Transportation Safety Board cited shoddy maintenance as the cause.

Burkhardt, as always, copped a plea, learned nothing, and in 2003 wound up heading the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad.

Shortly after taking over the MMA, Burkhardt cut the workforce by 275 employees, about half the work force. Adding insult to injury, he cut the remaining workers’ salaries by 40 percent.

 In those early years, pulp, paper and lumber were the MMA’s bread and butter. But beginning around 2006, oil prices began to surge, and the focus of Canadian railroads began to move westward.

The Road to Catastrophe

The Alberta bitumen, or tar sands, contain the world’s third largest reserves of recoverable oil, behind only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Later the Parshall Oil Field, part of the Bakken Formation, was discovered in North Dakota

There was big money in that dirty oil, and Ed Burkhardt and the MMA were determined to get all of it that they could.

The train that flattened Lac-Mégantic began its 3,100-mile trip in New Town, North Dakota and was scheduled to end the trip in a refinery located in New Brunswick. The 72 DOT 111 tank cars (more suited to hauling corn oil than petroleum) were scheduled to be handled by four different railroads and to pass through or near Chicago, Detroit, Windsor, Toronto and Montreal.

It was in Montreal where the MMA made the interchange and picked up the train from the CP. The lead unit of the MMA’s locomotive consist was engine number 5017. Eight months earlier. the 5017 was brought to the company’s repair shop following an engine failure.

The shop, for whatever reason, did a haphazard repair job. An oil leak was repaired by plastering glue over what appeared to be the source of the leak. Soon the glue gave way and the engine began to periodically surge and smoke. In turn this caused an accumulation in the turbocharger and exhaust.

On July 4, 2013, one day before the obliteration of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Francois Daigle ran the 5017 from Montreal to Farnham. Daigle had trouble maintaining speed and noticed the locomotive was belching black smoke.

Daigle reported the problem to his supervisor, Jean Demaistre, and after tying up (end of shift) he sent a fax to the repair shop in Derby, Maine. Since the repair shop was closed for the July 4th holiday, Daigle had another idea: take the 5017 off the lead position and bury it further back in the consist.

Since making a turn on the 5017 (burying it from lead position) would have meant a half hour delay, Demaistre shot down the idea, adding for good measure: “You’re complaining again!”

None of this was passed on to engineer Tom Harding when he took over the throttle of the 5017 the next day in Farnham, Quebec. By the time Harding completed the 115 mile run from Farnham to Nantes, he had been on duty for 10 hours and 30 minutes, 90 minutes short of the 12-hour limit mandated by law.

Nantes was the designated interchange point, and the American crew wasn’t set to take over the train until the next morning. Because the siding at Nantes (a track off the mainline, and equipped with a derail) was not available, Harding was forced to leave the nearly mile-long train on the main line — which pointed directly at Lac-Mégantic.

Harding set handbrakes on the five locomotives, a VP car (a caboose modified to function as a remote control car) and a buffer car filled with sand. The rule calls for the application of “sufficient handbrakes,” putting all the onus on the employees. Traditionally, handbrakes are a conductor’s work.

Harding also applied the independent brake (a brake affecting engines) from the 5017, the only one of the five units left running. At this point a traditional two-person crew would have performed a stabilization test to make sure the handbrakes were sufficient. Sadly for Lac-Mégantic, there was only Tom Harding.

Tom was cabbed back to a hotel in Lac-Mégantic, thinking all was well. It wasn’t. An hour or so later, the smoking 5017 caught fire. When the Nantes fire department arrived, the first thing they did was to hit the kill switch and shut down the 5017.

The fire was extinguished. This also meant that the engine-from-hell was no longer able to pump air. Soon the independent brakes bled off and the train began rolling westward, reaching 63 miles per hour before hitting a severe curve near Lac-Mégantic, sending 63 tank cars off the rails, releasing six million liters of petroleum crude oil.

The fire began almost immediately, sparking a series of massive explosions. At 1:14 am, July 6, 2013, 47 citizens of Lac-Mégantic were sacrificed to the profit-driven shareholders of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic.

Scapegoating and Aftermath

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) was given the job of writing an official report on the disaster. On August 19, 2014 TSB submitted its final version. Bruce Campbell’s chapter dealing with the TSB report is aptly titled “The Investigation that Lost Heart,” and for good reason.

The first version of the report listed 27 causes and contributing factors to the disaster; six of them pointed directly to the Single Person Crew (SPC). The second version had made no mention of SPC. The third version restored one reference. The final version hit its own kill switch and removed SPC entirely.

Campbell’s trenchant comment on this whitewashing, “The railways were no doubt also aware of the initial version, as well as subsequent drafts of the report’s conclusions, and were pushing hard to excise the one person crew causes.”

Campbell cites that Kathy Fox, the chair of the TSB, channeling Edward Burkhardt almost word for word, offered her own opinion, saying essentially that the single person crew was actually safer, because he or she would not be distracted by a second crew member. Yes, and trees cause pollution.

Earlier, on the bright spring morning of May 12, 2014, Tom Harding, along with his teenage son and a friend, were in his driveway working on a boat. The morning calm was broken with the sound of sirens. A black van containing the Quebec police screeched to a stop.

 Out poured a SWAT team, automatic weapons at the ready. They weren’t there to bust a terrorist cell. They were there to arrest Tom Harding.

Tom was forced to the ground and handcuffed, then thrown into the van and driven to Lac-Megantic for a publicity stunt: a perp walk. But the people of Lac-Mégantic weren’t buying it. One of them cried out, “It’s not them we want.”

Campbell adds, “Another remarked to journalists, ‘I would have expected the minister of transport, who allowed the train to operate with one operator, and the owner of the company to be there in handcuffs.’”

Tom Harding and two low-level company officials faced three possible criminal charges. They were eventually found not guilty on all counts.

On February 3, 2023 East Palestine, Ohio became the latest victim of cutbacks and layoffs in the railroad industry. The details of every railroad accident may differ, but the root cause is almost always greed. It won’t be the last time.

Malik Miah’s Against the Current article, “Behind ‘100% Preventable’ Rail Disaster: Anti worker Deregulation, Corporate greed,” tells a subsequent story. Miah writes, “No one listened to the rail workers and their unions, who demanded help from the state and federal governments, and the rail carriers. The rail unions have been warning about catastrophes for decades.”

May-June 2023, ATC 224

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