Lac Magentic Train Disaster (inferno in a Canadian town)

I know it’s an easy target but I can stay silent no longer.

As I assume anyone reading this thread knows, over the weekend, a train carrying huge quantities of flammable liquid “spontaneously” began to roll towards the Quebec town of Lac Magentic, gained speed, derailed, and then, disaster. (link to one of many, many reports). It now seems that the engineer (earlier and incorrectly hailed as a hero for towing cars away from the fire; it was not him who towed the cars) failed to set an “adequate” number of handbrakes. But that is not at whom this pit is directed.

No, I am astounded, PISSED and astounded, that a) a train carrying volatile substances can be left unattended for long periods (when any mischievous, or malicious, individual could fuck around with the brakes or anything else on the train) and more importantly b) that any train, let alone one loaded with crude oil or other flammable/toxic substance, could be parked on a downhill grade! The combination of unattended + parked on a downhill grade is the proverbial accident waiting to happen. And, it happened. Fifty people are now dead as a result.

In retrospect, this is EXACTLY the type of thing that could have, and would have been prevented, by applying even basic principles of accident avoidance. It is a no-brainer.

One example from my field (i.e. medicine). In operating rooms, the oxygen outlets and nitrous oxide outlets have different receptacle shapes making it physically impossible to connect oxygen delivery tubing to the nitrous oxide supply and vice versa.

In the same way, it could have been a simple matter to make it “physically impossible” for a train to become a “runaway” - just don’t park it on a downhill grade!! Then, it doesn’t matter if the brakes aren’t set. It’s a perfect example of the type of basic safety principle I allude to above. And, of course, if there’s no uphill or level grade to park it on, then for gawdsakes make sure the the train is not left unattended. Keep an engineer on board. Simple, cheap, and effective principles; neither of them applied.

Sorry, I have no clever closing sentence. Just rage. And astonishment at the ignorance. But mostly rage.

Am I confused, or isn’t an uphill grade just a downhill grade in a different direction? So only a level grade would really meet the need as you describe it. Do we know if there was a level grade anywhere around there?

I don’t disagree with your outrage, by the way, and I strongly agree with the general idea of making dangerous situations as fail-safe as possible.

As for leaving the train unattended, I’ll bet that staffing is strictly controlled by a bean-counter somewhere in home office, who determined that the extra person is not necessary, under the ineluctable need to cut costs in order to show profit. The carrier has to cut costs because everyone wants cheaper goods. It all goes back to the idea that you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, sometimes other people get what you aren’t willing to pay for, such as absence of safety measures.

I mainly thought it was strange that train brakes could gradually release. I’d’a thought they were like the air brakes in 18-wheelers - needing pressure to release and clamping down when that pressure is lost.

No expert, I.

I assume they don’t do that because the risk of accidentally braking at speed is greater than that of accidentally unbraking at rest.

You are absolutely right and I feel absolutely stupid. (unless it’s somehow less likely for the locomotives wheels to turn in the reverse direction when in “neutral” or “park”).

Well as long as the terrain has some peaks, it should be possible to locate a ‘center of gravity’ for the train and devise a protocol for how to park it such that it won’t be involved in a roll-away accident.

Some press reports indicate that there was a siding that he could have parked the train on, rather than leaving it on the main line - if so, that presumably would have hampered the ability for a runaway. May have started moving, but at the switch to the main line it likely would have had to stop.

But, the bean-counter theory apparently needs to be supplemented by the poor federal regulations - the normal rule is apparently to have a two-person crew, but MMA, the operator of the train, got an exemption allowing a one-person crew, which means that at some point, the crewman has to sleep and leave the train unattended.

That “center of gravity” will change any time a car is added or removed, as well as depending on how the load is distributed. Locating it is both unnecessary and very complicated.

In the modern world we constantly harp on about the burden of “health and safety” and to a large extent I agree.

However, I do think there are clear situations where full risk assessments are required. Very close to the top of that list is “transportation of dangerous substances through populated areas”
and pretty much right at the top of risks associated with that has to be “derailment and fire”. If exactly this scenario wasn’t covered in the first ten minutes of that risk assessment meeting then I can only assume either a) the people involved are idiots or don’t care, or b) they didn’t have one.
Either is unforgivable and someone is quite rightly going to have their arse handed to them. Contrary to popular belief, accidents *do * just happen sometimes and tragedies follow. I bet this is not one of those.

hopefully it will prompt some changes.

like no one man crews. or if a one man crew, it has to stop with enough time so that the train is secured without the engineer having to run over the hours allowed, or the hours allowed is extended for this case. or that when the engineer is picked up another crew member is brought by early enough so that two people make sure the train is secure. or that hazardous cargo trains can’t be parked unattended on the main line. or something.


Are we even sure that the OP’s account is accurate? I thought I read this morning that we still don’t have a clue what happened.

The “culprit” (if he/it even exists) is not clear, I admit. But the sequence of events is definitely confirmed, i.e. from its “parked” position, the train began to roll down the grade, gathered speed, and derailed.

Yes, I think we all agree that the train rolled down the hill.:slight_smile:

The train company’s CEO is suggesting the engineer is at fault. In fact, I’ve seen BBC footage of him flat-out accusing the engineer of not having set the brakes at all. Whether the engineer did or didn’t, that seems to me a dangerous thing for a CEO to be saying from a legal standpoint. I’d imagine lawyers for those suing the company could have a field day with that. And if it turns not to be true, the the engineer’s lawyer could have a field day in suing the CEO for false accusations.

This is really screwed up. The CEO goes to a French speaking town and doesn’t have a translator?

Then there is this:

But, still the CEO is blaming the single engineer on the train? The CEO said two engineers would mean more potential for more people to be hurt in an accident or for the engineers to be distracted? WTF! They want a single engineer because it is cheaper. Otherwise, why would there be a national law requiring two engineers if it was more dangerous?

Finally… when you read about the worries about all the increase in oil being shipped by train… remember that more and more natural gas and associated condensates (wrong word?) are also being shipped by trains because they’re trying to make a buck while still working on installing pipelines.

As far as I know, crude oil is not nearly as explosive as natural gas.

While the specifics seem unclear as of this writing, and while safety is an ever-evolving discipline, it does seem that there might be obvious improvements possible in how to park a train loaded with hazardous materials.

For example, if the question of “accidentally braking at speed” means the brakes can’t be deisgned differently, one could simply drop an anchor on a chain into the dirt and gravel far enough away from the tracks so as not to disturb them. Or clamp a wheel. Or something.

This seems like one of those situations where one thing didn’t go wrong, many did and the end result was horrifying.

I don’t know what the solution is but there are many contributors that go back a lot further than that night

[li]The regulators, who made all of this perfectly legal[/li][li]The firefighters who turned off the engine without knowing why it was on[/li][li]The railway employee who was with them who did not restart the engine nor wake the engineer[/li][li]Possibly the engineer who may have not set all the backup systems correctly[/li][li]The protesters who have ensured that by not building pipelines we’re transporting more oil by train[/li][li]All of us for consuming oil but not wanting the prices to rise[/li][li]The stockholders at the oil company who want the best return on their investment[/li][/ol]

And even with everything that went wrong on the oil train, the end result would probably have been a horrible environmental spill only except the train parked on the siding that it somehow ended up on was carrying propane.

I’ve been watching this since the initial crash and while the CEO was brain dead and any company with a PR department should not have let him out on his own and he is undoubtedly making the survivors and family members feel worse he’s not alone in the blame game, he’s just the ugly face at the front of the crowd.

I wish that some good would come of this and some of those contributing factors will change but given our short memories I suspect that within 6 months we’ll be back to business as usual until this happens again.

Oh and one final note - this could actually have been worse. The engineer used a rail tow thingy to pull away cars from the end of the train. While that fire was raging he went back multiple times and disconnected unburning tankers and dragged them away.

first reports of some person moving cars away said the engineer did it.

later reports said it was not him and was a firefighter.

Wow, how did a firefighter begin to know how to move train cars around?

As I understand it, until the prime movers (the diesel engines) are running in the locomotives, there is no air pressure in the system to “release” the brakes for the train. The default position is brakes on. I don’t know if there’s a bypass to that or not. But it’s strange that someone would know how to tamper with a train’s brakes.