With up to 50 dead in Lac-Mégantic, people need to realize that the transportation of oil will never be safe


As most of you know by now, tragedy struck the small town of Lac-Mégantic last week, about three hours from my hometown of Montreal. A runaway train pulling dozens of cars of crude oil quietly sped down a hill and then proceeded to jump the track.

The tanker train exploded at the center of downtown Lac-Mégantic, destroying 40 buildings and killing up to 50 people. The fire was so immense it could be seen from outer space, while what is left of the small historic Quebec town is barely recognizable.

When a preventable disaster like this takes place, everyone asks why? Who or what is responsible? The answer in this instance is just about everyone involved, except the innocent residents of Lac-Mégantic. The railway company, the locomotive engineer and the federal government all had a part to play in this catastrophe.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, a subsidiary of Rail World Inc. based in the U.S. is the company responsible for the runaway train. I consider MMA Railway to be the Wal-Mart in the train yards, corporate greed at its worst.

Canada Oil Train Derailment
What’s left of Lac-Mégantic

For starters, upon acquiring Montreal, Maine & Atlantic in 2001, CEO Edward Burkhardt lay people off, cut salaries by 40% and began to buy old, out of date freight cars and engines. Burkhardt then announced plans “to improve safety and efficiency” by cutting its locomotive crews in half, replacing two workers with a single employee. Imagine an airplane with no co-pilot.

MMA’s safety record is exactly what you would expect it to be; completely atrocious. In the last ten years their trains have been involved in 130 accidents including eight derailments and four collisions since 2010.

Last year, the MMA had an average of 34.7 accidents per million miles travelled; the national average is 2.3 accident per million. You may be asking yourself, why has this been allowed to continue? Well this happens when the government allows an industry to regulate itself. You can get away with anything when you make up the rules.

Statistics show that railroad safety has been improving in Canada over the last few years, just not with the companies who decide to cut corners it seems. It probably doesn’t help that Harper’s Government has been cutting back on transportation safety (among everything else). I wonder if we’ll start to see a decline in those statistics in the near future.

One of our government’s primary reasons for being is to ensure public safety. I’ll never understand in a million years why an industry as dangerous as railroading is allowed to regulate itself. I’m further dumbfounded as to why a company with this kind of appalling track record (pun intended) was allowed to continue operating in the first place. They might as well give out driver’s licenses to blind people.

Since the tragedy occurred, much of the talk outside Lac-Mégantic has been centered on the transportation of oil and the safest way to move it. In a country as vast as Canada, there are three options; rail, road and pipeline.

Road is generally out of the question, while not much would spill out in an accident, it isn’t economically viable and the CO2 emissions from the tens of thousands of trucks required would rival the tar sands themselves.

So which is safer, rail or pipeline? The very question is in itself deceitful, because there is no right answer.

As we witnessed, shipping by rail is more dangerous to human lives. Canada was built with the railroad, so most major towns and cities have trains going right through their downtown cores. You might see Lac-Mégantic as just a freak occurrence, but it will happen again.

oil transportation via railroad has jumped 28,000% since 2008

It will happen again because of the extreme volume at which we are moving the black gold. Since 2008, just five short years ago, oil transportation via railroad has jumped 28,000%. That’s right, twenty-eight thousand percent. From what I’ve read, it is set to double in the next five years.

So what is the alternative? Using pipelines to move ever increasing amounts of a fossil fuel we should have been dwindling ourselves off of years ago? It is true that pipelines are safer in terms of preventing the destruction of an entire town, but in terms of potential environmental damage, wildlife damage and human health, pipelines can be much more dangerous. One rupture in a pipeline could hypothetically spill more oil than a countless number of trains.

Canada’s new oil driven economy is making a few corporations extremely wealthy and making parts of Alberta resemble the Land of Mordor. But aside from the lucky few who work for these companies, it benefits few others. Hell, it isn’t even lowering our gas prices.

Our largest trading partner, the United States, has so much oil these days that Canada has to sell it to them below market value. Our fossil fuel industry has become such a burden on the environment; it threatens us all, not just the people located next to a railway line or pipeline.

While the media discuses the perils and benefits of different transportation methods, no one is talking about different energy methods. No one is talking about wind, solar or hydro power, you know how those get transported? Power lines! Reminds me of a billboard I saw once: When there’s a huge solar energy spill, it’s just called a “nice day”

Oil isn’t safe, period. It never has been and it never will be. The real tragedy here is that the disaster in Lac-Mégantic will likely be chalked up to just another industry mishap, with no real changes to come out of it. History will be repeated.

The next time you see a train gingerly rolling through your hometown, think of the people in Lac-Mégantic and the oil they died for.



  1. It is truly and horribly a shame what happened at lac Megantic. this could have been avoided, and the environmental disaster could have been minimized even after the tragedy but for one thing. Investigations and squabbles. it’s another case of old-fashioned railroading, only in this case, the train in question exploded.

Leave a Comment