The train derailment in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on Friday 5th July has come as a huge shock. With 37 confirmed dead, and another 13 people still missing, this is turning out to be the worst train accident in North America since a 1989 train crash in Mexico, which left 112 dead and a further 200 injured. Anguish and grief has started to turn into anger as people are learning the reasons for the accident — massive cutbacks in railways and the particularly callous remarks of the CEO of Rail World Inc., Ed Burkhardt. The Lac-Mégantic disaster shows how, in the present period, capitalism is killing us.
The 73-car train, full of crude oil, was left parked and unattended in Nantes, a neighbouring town just 13 kilometres away from Lac-Mégantic. The train’s sole engineer had initiated air brakes on the train cars to ensure that the train would not coast down the slope. Sometime during the night, someone noticed a fire on one of the train cars and called the fire department, which put out the fire and in doing so, turned off the train’s engine. Whether or not the turning off of the train’s engine is what led to the failure of the air brakes is still unclear. Sometime after this, the train slowly began to coast down the hill towards Lac-Mégantic, gathering speed and ending up derailing in the middle of the town in a series of giant explosions which ended up decimating much of the downtown and killing dozens of people.
On top of this being a tragic loss of human life, the environmental crisis resulting from this is now becoming clear. 6.5-million litres of crude oil either burned up or were spilling onto the grounds surrounding the train wreck. Oil slicks have been discovered in the river as far away as St-Georges, 80 kilometres east of Lac-Mégantic. The provincial government has pledged $60-million towards helping the community but it is clear that just the environmental effects alone will cost much more than that.
At first glance, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic may appear to be a confluence of unfortunate events. But, the reason that anger has quickly displaced sadness and mourning is that the entire tragedy could have been avoided if it had not been for cutbacks and pursuit for greater profits on the part of the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) Railway’s owner, Rail World Inc., and its allies in government.
Rail World Inc., a Chicago-based company, actually has a long history of accidents in Canada. According to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the company has had 129 accidents since 2003, including 77 derailments. In addition, eight of those accidents have involved hazardous material. Most recently, the company had a 13,000-litre diesel spill in Frontenac, just east of Lac-Mégantic. But this is not only isolated to Canada. The company has been involved in a host of serious incidents over the years in the U.S. Two years ago, U.S. authorities charged the company for a 2009 oil spill in Maine, eventually settling at a small $30,000 fine in 2011.
Rail World Inc. actually has a much worse record than the rest of the rail fleet in the US. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the railroad had 36.1 accidents per million miles traveled, in comparison to a national average of 14.6 accidents per million miles traveled. Ed Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World Inc. was ousted from his own company after the dangerous derailment in Wisconsin in 1996. While he in charge of Wisconsin Central, a train derailed, releasing hazardous material that combusted and consumed rail cars loaded with liquefied petroleum gas and propane. This derailment, according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report, consumed a mill and forced the evacuation of thousands. The reasons for this derailment were “because Wisconsin Central management did not ensure that the two employees responsible for inspecting the track structure were properly trained.”
The presence of a two-person crew during the Wisconsin derailment in 1996 significantly limited damage as the conductor uncoupled the cars carrying chemicals and propane to prevent the fire from spreading further. This was at a time when several rail companies, including Burkhardt’s Wisconsin Central, were experimenting with the use of one-person crews.
“He got the engines and the cars away from where there could have been more explosions. I think people understood that having a second person on that train helped save that community from annihilation,” recalled Keith Luebke, then a leader of a Wisconsin union that pushed for two-person crew legislation.
In Canada, however, Rail World Inc. has sought special dispensation from the federal government to operate one-man train crews, even though traditionally Canadian railways were supposed to have at least five people running trains. It was only in 2012 when the federal government finally relented and allowed Rail World Inc. to operate one-person trains on the MMA Railway.
It isn’t hard to think that if the train had more than one engineer on board, the train would probably not have needed to park on the railway for the night (especially on a hill), or that there would have been someone on board to warn firefighters on the dangers of turning off the train’s engines. These facts are plain to see, and it is these facts that have enraged the residents of Lac-Mégantic who have seen their town destroyed and loved ones killed.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Rail World Inc. is particularly prone to accidents precisely because it is on the front lines of cutting back on safety and maximizing railways’ profit margins. According to the Rail World website, “Our urpose is to promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills.” Ed Burkhardt, now 74, led privatization efforts in New Zealand in the 1990s, work that earned him a title as honorary consul for the country. In 1999, he started Rail World Inc., a “management, consulting and investment corporation specializing in privatizations and restructurings.”
Burkhardt didn’t show his face in Lac-Mégnatic until five days after the explosions, for fear that he “would be shot.” His fear was a real one, as he was continually shouted at during the 43-minute press conference held on a street in the town. Burkhardt appeared to be more concerned about his personal safety and reputation than showing any degree of compassion or responsibility for the crash. He stated that his company would “not [be] accepting responsibility” and he attempted to shift blame to the sole train engineer working at the time, stating, “It seems an adequate number of hand brakes were not set, and this is the engineer’s responsibility. I don’t think he’ll be back working with us.”
When questioned as to whether his company’s cost-cutting policy of “one-man crews” contributed to this crisis, Burkhardt stated that he actually believed that one-man crews were the best option, as one person tended to have less distraction if alone. “We went through a very difficult period in the aftermath of the big financial meltdown,” Burkhardt told reporters, who shouted questions at him. “MMA has operated in a very difficult market so it’s got to be our objective to haul our costs down.”
This process began operations in January 2003, when within days of taking over the then bankrupt Iron Road Railways, Burkhardt announced a 25-per-cent reduction in employee salaries. Over the years Rail World Inc. has tried to sell millions of dollars worth of track due to poor profits due to poor market conditions. In May 2010, they announced plans to save $4.5-million by halving crews on locomotives by replacing them with remote-control devices.
Unions have now spoken up blaming inadequate federal regulations to keep companies like MMA in check. Guy Farrell, deputy director of the Quebec steelworkers’ union, Syndicat des Métallos, stated, “For us, the important thing is that the government must tighten regulations now.” But why has the government allowed operators to cut corners like this? When the economy is based on private profit and market competition, it is only natural that operators like MMA will lobby governments to loosen regulations and push for cuts to staffing in order to compete on the world market and make greater profits.
The Lac-Mégantic disaster shows that this is not the fault of no one person, but the fault of the system as a whole. This system puts at risk our lives, both directly through massive catastrophes like this and more indirectly through huge environmental disasters. The calls from the environmental movement to blame this event on “our dependance on oil” unfortunately miss the point. This tragedy could have very likely been averted if the needs and safety of the town of Lac-Mégantic had been satisfied; however, the train was allowed to operate unsafely because it benefited the company’s financial bottom line. Human life and the planet are to be disregarded if they endanger quarterly profit reports; we should make sure that capitalism has no place in our lives or on our planet.