Monday, August 19, 2019

Did we learn anything from Lac-Mégantic? Bruce Campbell isn't so sure.

In my work, I have to think about how railways are an extension of state power during the development of Northern Ontario in the early twentieth century. I think a lot about railways in Canada more broadly too: past, present and future.

I remember when the tragedy unfolded at Lac-Mégantic in 2013, and I remember the federal government and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway both scrambling to distance themselves from it. It wasn't particularly surprising when the criminal liability was placed almost entirely at the feet of the crew on duty that night, even though safety violations were systemic throughout the company and even the regulatory system. I knew this was wrong, and I donated to the legal defence fund in the hopes that the trial would see this as well. Ultimately, the justice system worked and recognized that almost all the charges simply didn't fit the accused standing in the dock.

I even wrote about the issue of crude-by-rail on my website, and ultimately for Rabble. I called for increased track inspections and for companies to focus more on safety. However, I didn't say anything about government. Bruce Campbell shows how short-sighted this was.

In The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, Campbell (the former Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) looks at the safety issues plaguing the railway industry in Canada and specifically those created by oil trains. This is a solid book, meticulously-researched and focused on the roles played by both the federal government (regardless of political stripe) and big business in what should have been an unimaginable disaster. It can get a little sensationalist at times, but this does not detract from what is a thorough explanation of just how engrained the safety problems are that led to the deaths of 47 people in the small Quebec town.

While I only bothered to look at the industry, Campbell looks deeply into the regulatory holes left by years of neoliberal ideology in government, and within Transport Canada in particular. He charts the origin of this transformation back to the Mulroney government and its decision to shift much of the regulation of the railway industry from government to the industry itself. When the new Canadian Railway Operating Rules came into effect as part of the new 1988 Railway Safety Act, the regulations had largely been drafted by industry and put efficiency ahead of safety. Since then, the erosion of regulation has continued under both Conservative and Liberal governments, often with close ties to railroaders. Mulroney himself had been CEO of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, which owned the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway, the first railway in Canada to successfully lobby for one-person crews. After he left politics, former Harper cabinet minister John Baird accepted a seat on the board of Canadian Pacific.

Campbell charts lobbying efforts from the railway and energy industries to roll back regulation on both sides of the border, to remove power from government investigators, and to undermine workplace safety in the name of cost-cutting. The derailment in Lac-Mégantic was inevitable - not necessarily in that town, or with that train, or with that crew - but it was going to happen somewhere because the system was designed to ignore all the mistakes that led to the derailment.

Not only does Campbell look at the history of railway regulation leading up to Lac-Mégantic, he also examines what happened after the derailment. In short, not a great deal. Yes, the most dangerous tank cars have been removed from oil service, but railway regulations have not changed much, the Transportation Safety Board still lacks teeth and railway companies can still push the government around too much. In fact, the number of runaway train incidents across Canada is increasing. I'd like to say that we can peg all of this on Stephen Harper, but progress under Justin Trudeau has been almost as glacial. Even more stunning, for me at least, is that railway safety regulation in the United States is actually more robust than it is in Canada, even if Donald Trump is trying to undermine it.

Campbell looks deeply at a subject that most of us never think about. The people of Lac-Mégantic have been forced to think about it whether they wanted to or not. As Canada's railways post healthy profits, we need to ask whether regulation would really be that much more expensive? Perhaps more important, would we rather have a government willing to ensure that those profits keep rolling in, or one that makes sure that the residents of Lac-Mégantic never have to relive their ordeal as they read about another town razed by an inferno on the rails?