Comment: Rail Industry Publication Attacks New York Times Over Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Tragedy

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Lac-Megantic oil train fire

Six years after the oil train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec — which claimed 47 lives and destroyed the downtown of this small lakeside town — The New York Times reviewed what progress has been made since the disaster, with a headline that noted “Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails.”

However, Railway Age, the leading rail industry publication, attacked The Times' coverage in an incredibly flawed critique. The title of finance editor David Nahass's take-down is “Clickbait Journalism at The New York Times.”

In reality, both stories miss the mark on oil train safety.

The New York Times makes a major error in the industry’s favor regarding rail safety, as well as serious omissions about the risks of moving flammable cargo by rail.

Nevertheless, Nahass claims that The New York Times “sadly exhumes and retreads the memories of those lost and the pain of those who suffered trauma in order to generate readership.”

Distorting Reality 

Nahass did get one thing correct in his story, which comes across like rail industry propaganda: “The perception of progress on the rail safety front is not universally perceived.” It isn’t universally perceived because, for the transport of flammable materials by rail, progress hasn't happened. Instead, the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back the few meaningful regulations that had been put in place in the U.S. since the 2013 disaster.

To support his claim, Nahass points to three areas that he says have seen improvements in rail safety: tank car design, positive train control (PTC), and train speed guidelines.

Nahass cites the new tank car designs, DOT-117R and DOT-117J, as an industry action to improve oil train safety. But that claim is based on the premise that these rail cars do not rupture during accidents. Three accidents involving the DOT-117R tank cars have occurred in recent years, two with oil trains and one with an ethanol train.

As DeSmog has reported, all three were major disasters.

In June of 2018, an oil train derailed in Doon, Iowa. Fourteen of the DOT-117R tank cars ruptured, spilling 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. In February, another oil train of DOT-117R tank cars derailed in Canada, resulting in another major oil spill. In April, an ethanol train with DOT-117R tank cars derailed and exploded in Texas, leading to the local evacuation of a residential area and causing a large fire that burned a stable and killed three horses.

Three crashes with the new “safe” tank cars. Three major failures. Railway Age's failure to mention these accidents can only be described as “an editorial issue” of the type Nahass accuses The New York Times as being guilty of.

The one glaring error in favor of the rail industry from the Times' coverage is that the “effectiveness [of DOT-117 tank cars] in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.” Considering all three accidents involving these rail cars resulted in fires, spills, and evacuations, this statement is a huge error. The rail industry's top trade magazine should have been thanking The Times instead of attacking them.

As for the claim that speed limits have improved rail safety, that claim, too, is without merit. Every major oil train accident after the Lac-Mégantic disaster has happened below the speed limits. DOT-117 tank cars appear unable to withstand derailments at low speeds, as evidenced by them failing in three out of three accidents.

The sheer audacity of Nahass claiming that the rail industry deserves credit for positive train control (PTC), a system for monitoring and controlling train movements, as a safety measure is stunning.

As documented on DeSmog, PTC was first recommended as a safety measure almost 50 years ago. The industry has fought against this critical safety technology for the ensuing five decades, has ignored a 2008 Congressional mandate to implement the technology by 2015, and continues to delay rolling out this proven safety measure. A top rail lobbyist was even given an award for his work in delaying its implementation.

Nahass says, “Avoidable death is a tragedy no one should have to bear.” Hundreds of people have died because the rail industry has been fighting PTC, which includes well-funded lobbying efforts. Avoidable deaths are not a tragedy for the rail industry but a by-product of successful lobbying and higher profits.

Meanwhile, neither The New York Times nor Railway Age mentions how new regulations to require modern braking systems on trains, which still use 19th century technology were repealed under the Trump administration.

Lac-Mégantic Was 'a Corporate Crime Scene'

Shortly after the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “The explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.”

At DeSmog — and in more detail in my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk — we have documented how this disaster was the result of lax regulation and corporate cost-cutting. Yet Nahass ignores all of that information when saying the accident was a result of three events, none of which were related to the root cause of the problems leading to the accident.

Even the Transportation Safety Board of Canada noted 18 factors that contributed to the deadly oil train accident. The fact that Nahass only listed three of these is another example of a blatant “editorial issue.” 

Deregulation Caused Lac-Mégantic Deaths and Continues to Increase Risks

Nahass purports that the worst thing about The New York Times story was that “it highlights deregulation as a possible cause for the tragedy.” I have no doubt deregulation was the root cause of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

The accident could have been avoided if a back-up braking system had been engaged. But this system wasn’t used because the rail company, Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA), wasn’t required to and instead explicitly instructed the train's engineer not to engage it.

The train was also much heavier than allowed. MMA knew this but instructed the engineer to ignore that fact, a sign of weak regulatory oversight. Despite attempts to require two-persons crews, the train that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic was allowed to be operated with only a single crew member — another risk factor. No regulations required the oil in the tank cars to have been “stabilized,” removing its flammable vapors. At the time, modern braking systems were not mandatory for trains carrying flammable cargo, and while a rule changing that was put in place in 2015, the Trump administration has since repealed it.

That fateful night in Quebec in 2013, a train full of flammable material was parked on the top of a steep hill above a small town. It was left on the main tracks, with the engine running, and no safety measures were in place to address known causes of runaway trains — a problem that The Times correctly notes has gotten worse since 2013.

However, Railway Age defends deregulation as a way to improve safety, even after the recent deadly Boeing airline disasters that also seem to have roots in industry deregulation.

At a November 2016 conference examining lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Brian Stevens, who at the time was National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, clearly cited deregulation as the root cause of the accident.

Lac-Mégantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of a deregulatory era for rail that continues today in both the U.S. and Canada.

These days, the Trump administration is actively working to roll back recently passed federal rules governing the rail industry. The Federal Railroad Administration has explicitly stated a focus on removing regulations and letting rail companies volunteer to implement safety measures.

Even that freedom from regulation isn't enough for the rail industry. Its main publication wants freedom from journalistic critique as well. The attack piece in Railway Age is not just an egregious editorial failure; it represents a basic moral failure of an industry that continues to put profit over safety.

Main Image: Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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