What Caused the Oil Train Disaster?

Roger Annis Jul 8, 2013

In the wee hours of Saturday, July 6, just after midnight, a train hauling 73 cars of petroleum product derailed and exploded in the center of the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

A number of the rail cars caught fire and erupted in huge fireballs. The center of the town was razed to the ground and the rail cars were still burning 36 hours later when this article was being written. By noon on July 7, five people were declared dead, and 40 are missing.

Lac Mégantic is a town of 6,000 people, located 150 kilometers south of Quebec City, near the province's border with Maine. The town and surrounding region draw tens of thousands of tourists from Canada and the U.S. every year.

Incredibly, there was no one on board operating the train. An engineer had stationed the train overnight and reportedly followed all procedures to set its stationary braking. But somehow, after the engineer had gone to a motel to bunk down for the night, the brakes loosened, and the train began to roll.

The train is part of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMAR), which has approximately 1,000 kilometers of track in Quebec and New Brunswick and in the U.S. states of Maine and Vermont. It is owned by Rail World, formed in 1999 and describing itself itself thusly: "A railway management, consulting and investment corporation specializing in privatizations and restructurings. Its purpose is to promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills. Rail World was incorporated in July 1999 by Edward A. Burkhardt, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer."

The MMAR network is a corporate cobbling together of secondary and older lines–some as old as 100 years–that were hived off by larger companies in past decades, notably Canadian Pacific, in their endless quest for higher profits. It includes the former Canadian Pacific rail connection linking Montreal to Saint John, New Brunswick via southern Quebec and northern Maine.

Rail World operates former state-owned rail lines in Poland, Finland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. Edward Burkhardt oversaw the privatization of the rail and ferry networks in New Zealand during the 1990s. He serves as the honorary consul for New Zealand in Chicago.

Residents of Quebec and across Canada are shocked by this catastrophe, but scarily, they ain't seen nothing yet. The transport of petroleum products by rail in Canada is skyrocketing. According to CBC News, the number of rail cars of petroleum transported in 2011 was 18,000. The following year, it was 83,500.

The Railroaded website Railroaded is dedicated to recording railway spills of oil, chemicals and other products on CN Rail, Canada's largest rail company. CN is already hauling lots of oil and is gearing up for more. The company has hundreds of derailments each year. Appended to this article is a listing of some of the largest petroleum and chemical spills it has caused.

Railways are particularly eager to move Alberta tar sands product. Proposed pipelines are running into protest and resistance. Reporting on industry prospects for expansion of tar sands output, the Globe and Mail reported on June 5:

The power of rail to deliver oil on existing tracks may be underestimated, and may significantly solve transportation issues, said Peter Tertzakian, an energy economist with ARC Financial Corp. in Calgary. "One has to keep in mind that 10 unit trains is equal to one Keystone XL. And 10 trains isn't that many," he said.

The Conservative government in Ottawa has a conflicting relationship to oil-by-rail expansion. A May 23 Globe article reporting on rail's prospects for moving tar sands product to the British Columbia coast notes that no special permits are required of railways that decide to ramp up volumes. Rail and pipeline transportation in Canada is a strictly federal responsibility.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls oil-by-rail "more environmentally challenging" than using pipelines. But that hesitancy has nothing to do with the "environment", as any ordinary citizen would understand the term. It is simply a statement of preference in the government's aggressive championing of tar sands extraction–pipelines are the preferred means of transport for financial as well public relations reasons.

The Harper government is lobbying heavily to gain approval for at least four new tar sands pipelines–Keystone XL, south to the U.S.; Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain to the BC coast; and a line to Montreal and Saint John, New Brunswick, with a possible branch from Montreal to Portland, Maine.


The following are a few of the examples of CN Rail spills cited in a research paper at the Railroaded website titled "CN Railway derailments, other accidents and incidents":

— In November 2012, 5,700 liters of diesel fuel spilled onto the track and into the Squamish River Estuary, British Columbia (Vancouver region), a sensitive saltwater ecosystem.

— In December 2009, propane, benzene and plastic pellets were spilled near Spy Hill, Saskatchewan, igniting and burning 34 rail cars for six days.

— About 60,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into the Rock and Kishwaukee rivers in Cherry Valley, Illinois, in June 2009, resulting in the single, largest, not-natural fish kill in the history of Illinois. The same spill and massive explosion of ethanol, resulted in the courts awarding $36 million to plaintiffs in a negligence lawsuit against CN for loss of life, injury and associated damages.

— In June 2006, 233,000 liters of hydrocarbons spilled, 70 percent of which ended up in the Riviere du Loup in eastern Quebec.

— About 40,000 liters of caustic soda spilled into the Cheakamus River, British Columbia (north of Vancouver) in August 2005, decimating all of the fish–over 500,000–in the area.

— Also in August 2005, 1.3 million liters of heavy bunker C fuel oil and 700,000 liters of pole treating oil spilled into Wabamun Lake, central Alberta, killing hundreds of birds, fish and other wildlife. CN was fined $1.4 million for breaching both federal and Alberta environmental protection legislation.

— In May 2002, a freight train collided with a truck near Firdale, Manitoba. A catastrophic release from cars carrying hexene and benzene cars resulted in a massive fire that engulfed the other derailed cars, most of which were carrying plastic pellets.

— About 2.7 million liters of hydrocarbons spilled and caught fire near Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec (east of Montreal) in December 1999, burning rail cars for more than 4 days.

— About 12,000 liters of diesel fuel spilled into the Rouge River, Quebec, between Montreal and Ottawa, in May 1997.

— In January 1995, 230,000 liters of sulphuric acid spilled and settled on the bottom of Petit lac Masketsi, Quebec, north of Trois Rivières.

First published at, later at

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