Canadian Underwriter

How Canada fares on rail risk five years after Lac-Mégantic

July 5, 2018   by Greg Meckbach

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There is room for improvement in managing railway risk, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada suggested in a release marking the fifth anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, tragedy.

For years, TSB has been calling for more ways to stop trains, be they unattended runaway trains, or trains whose crews did not follow visual signals to slow down or stop.

The issue was brought into high relief on July 6, 2013, when 47 people in Lac-Mégantic died after an unmanned train loaded with 7.7 million litres of fuel rolled into the downtown core and exploded in the middle of the night.

“The issue of additional physical defenses, which the TSB has called for to help prevent uncontrolled movements, has yet to be sufficiently addressed,” TSB stated Wednesday. “Both air brake and hand brake systems are subject to failure, as the technology is not fail-proof.”

For example, air brake systems are prone to leakage and suffer from limitations in maintaining brake cylinder pressure. Hand brakes, TSB added, “do not provide feedback to the operator about the force applied, and often do not provide the required braking force due to their design and other mechanical and physical factors.”

Examples of “additional physical defences” include:

  • “derails,” which are devices attached to railways designed to stop trains;
  • hand brake remote monitoring devices that track location using the global positioning system; and
  • devices that automatically apply emergency brakes if the pressure in air brakes gets too low.

The investigation report into the Lac-Mégantic accident is not the first time TSB has called for more ways to stop trains. It also made that recommendation in a report released in 2013 on a fatal VIA Rail passenger train derailment near Hamilton in 2012.

The Toronto Transit Commission has “trip arms” designed to drop and activate emergency brakes on the subway trains. Since 1952, some Amtrak trains in the United States have had “penalty brakes,” which are designed to stop the train if the operator fails to obey signals to slow down or stop.

Transport Canada, which regulates the railway sector, is now “conducting more frequent and comprehensive audits of railways’ safety management systems, and by striving to ensure that each railway has completed its required corrective action,” TSB said July 4, 2018.

In its report on the Lac-Mégantic disaster, TSB noted that before the accident, there was an “absence of a follow-up procedure” to ensure that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was correcting weaknesses in its safety management system.

MMA “never assessed the risks of leaving a train carrying crude oil unattended, on a downhill grade, with no other precautions taken to prevent the train from running uncontrolled, other than the assumed correct application of the handbrakes,” TSB senior investigator Don Mustard said in 2015 at the 42nd Annual Engineering Insurance Conference in Toronto.