Photograph by Mathieu Belanger, Reuters

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The town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec is reeling from an oil train crash July 6, and many questions linger about factors that contributed to the disaster.

Photograph by Mathieu Belanger, Reuters

Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause

After runaway oil tanker cars led to a deadly explosion and fire in Canada, several aspects of the train's handling are being questioned.

As investigators piece together the events that led to the devastating oil train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a number of details are sure to be focus of the wider debate on how a North America awash in crude oil handles sharply increasing transport of this hazardous cargo. (See related story: "Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.")

The engineer who had been in charge of the train was suspended without pay and was "in police control" on Wednesday, said the head of the rail company as he toured the shattered town. But Ed Burkhardt, president of Railworld, parent company of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line, met jeering residents with a defense of his company's past safety record, saying it followed industry practices.

Some 50 people were either dead or missing and presumed dead in what is likely the worst rail disaster in North America since 1989. Authorities have not said how much oil the driverless runaway train was carrying when it careened into town and derailed on Saturday morning, but with 72 tanker cars, the capacity clearly was in excess of 2 million gallons (7.9 million liters). The fireball that destroyed 30 downtown buildings and raged for hours was visible from space.  (See related: "Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.")

The inquiry into the disaster is likely to focus on a few key issues, many of them raising larger questions about increased train transport of North American oil.

The Hand Brakes

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, investigating the incident, said that the train was parked by the engineer late Friday night before he went to sleep in a nearby hotel. Shortly afterward, nearby residents reported a fire aboard the train, and a local volunteer firefighting brigade arrived on scene to put it out. The firefighters shut the engine off, which would have disengaged the air brake system. But the train also had 11 hand brakes that should have held it in place. Burkhardt said the company now doubts the engineer's story that he had applied the hand brakes before leaving the train: "We think that he applied some handbrakes, the problem is that he didn't apply enough of them." The train was parked on a track with a downhill grade toward the town 7 miles (12 kilometers) away.

The Lone Engineer

Both the rail company and regulators have faced questions about why the train would be left alone, unlocked at night. In response to a reporter's comment that it would have been unusual to abandon such a hazardous cargo train in the United States, Luc Bourdon, director general of rail safety in Transport Canada, said, "On a mainline like that, it is very unusual in Canada as well." He said Montreal, Maine & Atlantic had been subject to oversight, just like other operators in Canada. But one key difference emerged: The company had received approval from Ottawa in 2012 to reduce staffing and operate with only one employee aboard a train, one of only two Canadian rail lines (the other is Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway) okayed to run with solo engineers. "They had to meet with Transport Canada and demonstrate to us that they could do it safely," said Bourdon.

Weak Tanker Cars?

Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it would be examining the design of the class of railcar used on the train, known as the DOT-111, which is known to regulators both in Canada and the United States to be vulnerable to leaks and explosions. In a presentation last year on the probe into a deadly ethanol train explosion in Illinois, officials at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted the DOT-111s had a "high incidence of tank failure," with housings not effective in preventing impact damage. Newer DOT-111s are required to have thicker shells and protection for fittings; it is not known whether the Lac-Mégantic train cars had these improvements. (See related interactive: "Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.")

Insufficient Oversight?

Canada's railroads have seen an astounding 260-fold increase in crude oil traffic since 2009 (from 500 carloads to 130,000 to 140,000 carloads this year). And yet Ottawa is cutting funding for the chief regulator, Transport Canada, by almost 30 percent, down to $1.5 billion, according to government spending estimates for this fiscal year and next. Deregulation of the industry has been ongoing, and back in 2007, the nonprofit Canada Safety Council warned of the potential for disaster: Government policy "allows rail companies to regulate themselves, removing the federal government's ability to protect Canadians and their environment, and allowing the industry to hide critical safety information from the public."

No Planning for Oil Transport

The tragic accident immediately touched off a debate on whether opposition to new pipelines in both Canada and the United States had contributed to the move to put crude oil on trains. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, jumped into the fray the day after the accident with an op-ed in The Globe and Mail lashing out at the Obama administration's delay in approving the Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Texas, although that wouldn't have been an alternate conduit for the North Dakota oil headed through Lac-Mégantic that night. (See related: "Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.") Andrew Leach, energy economist at the University of Alberta's Alberta School of Business, said the disaster's likely impact on public debate will be similar to that of the BP oil spill: increased call for alternatives to oil, and less trust in both the oil business and in regulators' ability to sufficiently mitigate its risks. (See related: "Oil Spill Spotlights Keystone XL Issue: Is Canadian Crude Worse?")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.