Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Horrific Freight Train Tragedy Investigation Rules on Dangerous Cargo

Overseeing Authorities Must Audit Their Own Regulations More Rigorously Whilst Operators Must Raise Standards
Shipping News Feature

CANADA – The Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s (TSB) investigation into the horrifying Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) freight train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, concluded that a multitude of factors led to the accident which left 47 people dead. Shipping cargo can occasionally be very dangerous and when via rail and things go wrong, as in this case, it can be really serious so a year on from this, the most deadliest Canadian rail disaster since 1864, the TSB is now calling for additional physical defences to prevent runaway trains, and for more thorough audits of safety management systems‎ to ensure railways are effectively managing safety.

On the evening of 5 July 2013, the MMA train was parked on a descending grade on the main track in Nantes, Quebec. The engineer applied hand brakes on all five locomotives, plus two other cars, and shut down all but the lead locomotive. Railway rules require hand brakes alone to be capable of holding a train, and this must be verified by a test. That night, the locomotive air brakes were left on during the test, meaning the train was being held by a combination of hand brakes and air brakes, giving a false impression that the hand brakes alone would hold the train.

When a fire began in the engine, emergency responders shut off the engine, causing the air holding the independent brakes to leak off, reducing their effectiveness. Without enough force from the hand brakes, the train began rolling downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, just over seven miles away. As it moved down the grade, the train picked up speed, reaching a top speed of 65 mph, and derailing near the centre of town. Almost every derailed car was breached, releasing almost six million litres of crude oil, which ignited into a large fire.

The TSB uncovered a total of 18 distinct causes and contributing factors, many of them influencing one another. The report found that MMA was a company with a weak safety culture that did not have a functioning safety management system to manage risks. The TSB also learned that Transport Canada did not audit MMA often and thoroughly enough to ensure it was effectively managing the risks in its operations. Furthermore, the Board found problems with training, employee monitoring, and maintenance practices at MMA; with industry rules for the securement of unattended trains; and with the tank cars used to carry volatile petroleum crude oil. Wendy Tadros, Chair of the TSB, said:

“Accidents never come down to a single individual, a single action or a single factor. You have to look at the whole context. In our investigation, we found 18 factors played a role in this accident. This investigation and its findings are complex, but our goal is simple: we must improve rail safety in Canada. That’s why, in addition to our three previous recommendations, we are issuing two new recommendations to ensure unattended trains will always be secured, and Canada’s railways will have safety management systems that really work to manage safety. This is about governments, railways and shippers doing everything in their power to ensure there is never another Lac-Mégantic.”

Following the incident, MMA declared bankruptcy and its assets, apart from fifteen locomotives worth $1.6 million, were sold at auction to Railroad Acquisition Holdings, a subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group, to create a new railroad operating under the name Central Maine and Quebec Railway.

The report concludes that the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic was not caused by one single person, action or organisation. Many factors played a role, and addressing the safety issues will take a concerted effort from regulators, railways, shippers, tank car manufacturers, and refiners in Canada and the US. Although this investigation is complete, the TSB says that it will continue to monitor its five recommendations, and to report publicly on any progress—or lack of progress—until all of the safety deficiencies have been corrected. The safety board’s recommendations are as follows:

• Transport Canada must take a more hands on role when it comes to railways’ safety management systems—making sure not just that they exist, but that they are working and that they are effective.

• Canadian railways must put in place additional physical defences to prevent runaways.

• Emergency response assistance plans must be created when large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons, like oil, are shipped. (Status: fully implemented)

• Railway companies should conduct strategic route-planning and enhance train operations for all trains carrying dangerous goods. (Status: underway. Railways need to make progress on the development and implementation of the new rules)

• Enhanced protection standards must be put in place for Class 111 tank cars. (Status: underway. More work required)

What is clear from these recommendations is that the usual simple principles regarding health and safety need to be applied particularly rigorously in cases where huge cargoes of dangerous goods are to be moved i.e. proper standardised risk assessments and modus operandi protocols to be in place and overseeing bodies to properly audit operators as well as decreeing standards.