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Three cleared of negligence in Canada railway disaster

24 January 2018

On January 19, a Canadian court cleared three railway workers of criminal negligence in one of the country's worst train disasters, which killed 47 people in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in 2013. Former Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) train conductor Thomas Harding, operations manager Jean Demaitre, and railway traffic controller Richard Labrie faced 47 counts of criminal negligence - one for each death.

The Lac-Megantic inferno - Image: TSB
The Lac-Megantic inferno - Image: TSB

After a trial lasting almost four months, the jury took nine days to reach the not guilty verdict. The three accused could have faced life in prison, if convicted.

The disaster involved a train carrying 7.7 million litres of shale oil in 72 tanker cars from North Dakota to the Maritimes, which had been parked overnight in the village of Nantes, south of Quebec City. The conductor, the only operator on the train, left it unattended as he went to his sleeping quarters. In the night, a fire broke out in the main locomotive and firefighters extinguished the flames and turned off the engine, which cut the air brakes.

With insufficient brake power and on an incline, the 10,000 tonne train started moving downhill, gathering speed until 11 km later it reached a curve in the track in Lac-Megantic, where it derailed. Several of the tanker cars exploded, causing an inferno which destroyed 40 buildings and killed many of the people inside.

The blasts devastated a large area of Lac-Megantic and forced some 2,000 residents to flee their homes.

Harding, the conductor, admitted that he only applied seven handbrakes and did not fully test them before leaving the train. The prosecution argued that more handbrakes would have stopped the train from moving and that he, and Demaitre and Labrie, were each criminally negligent in their own way for failing to ensure the train was safe.

The defence argued the conductor had followed MM&A policy in applying the brakes, and any failings were the company’s.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigators blamed poor safety standards at MM&A, saying the company had a "weak safety culture". After the crash, the US-headquartered company declared bankruptcy. Charges against the company are still pending.

In a 191-page report they listed other contributory factors including improper brake tests, a highly flammable cargo in substandard tanker cars and a curve in the tracks at the bottom of a slope.

But the report also blamed a lack of regulatory oversight for the crash, pointing to the huge increase in shipments of oil by rail, from 500 in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013.

In the aftermath of the disaster, authorities announced tougher rail safety rules, including the phasing out or retrofitting of substandard tanker cars used to transport flammable liquids.

Harding is still facing other charges relating to his role in the disaster.

Meanwhile, on January 23, the federal government committed to building a railway bypass for Lac-Megantic. 

In a statement, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the federal government would provide a "substantial amount" to build the bypass, and was in discussions with the Quebec provincial government on the project. Specifics will be announced before the anniversary of the explosion in July, he said.

Quebec's environmental review board, BAPE, put forward five bypass options in a report released last July. The one most favoured by  Lac-Megantic residents would reroute the train tracks to the north of the town.

Initial estimates show a bypass would add 11 or 12 kilometres of track and would cost about $130 million, although those figures still need to be refined.

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