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Vol. 81/No. 42      November 13, 2017


Rail bosses, gov’t responsible in 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster

MONTREAL — The government’s frame-up trial against rail workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie, seeking to hold them responsible for the 2013 Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, is running into some trouble. Under cross-examination, witnesses have admitted the rail bosses ordered Harding and other engineers to stop using simple practices that would have prevented the derailment.

Harding, the engineer on the train, is the main target in the government frame-up. The government and rail bosses accuse him of not setting a sufficient number of hand brakes on the parked train, which allowed it to roll into Lac-Mégantic and explode.

Michael Horan, former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic’s assistant director of transportation, admitted on the stand that he received a 2012 email from railroad management directing him to tell Harding to stop using the train’s automatic braking system to secure the train at the Nantes stopover near Lac-Mégantic.

These brakes, activated by a hand switch inside the locomotive, are a backup system that uses air pressure to lock the wheels on the entire train.

In March 2016, the Toronto Globe and Mail published an exposé on the disaster, reporting that the use of the automatic brakes would have held Harding’s 72-tanker train from rolling down into Lac-Mégantic while Harding slept in a hotel there.

Forbidden by management from setting the automatic brake system, Harding left the engine running to keep the locomotive brakes on and prevent movement of the train. He was the only person on the crew and had reached his 12-hour limit of service for the day. He had to get some sleep before starting up again in the morning.

But during the night a small fire broke out on the engine, and volunteer firefighters unfamiliar with the train turned off the engine when they put the fire out. It was later determined the fire was caused by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic officials’ decision to cut back on maintenance to cut costs.

The railroad called Harding to tell him about the fire and he offered to go back to the train, but was told to get his sleep, that everything was under control.

Without power, the locomotive air brakes bled out and the hand brakes Harding set on seven tanker cars couldn’t hold the train.

The Globe and Mail explained that the company policy of forbidding engineers from engaging the automatic back-up air brakes was designed to save time and therefore money at the morning start up, since it could have taken up to an hour to re-pressurize the system.

Profits over rail safety
The reason there was only one crew member on the train was a special dispensation to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic by Transport Canada, the federal government rail oversight agency. Horan told the court that in 2003, in order to cut costs, the rail bosses asked Transport Canada for approval to reduce crew size to one.

Horan, who was in charge of safety and training for all Quebec MMA employees, said the agency approved the request in 2009. The only safety precaution imposed by the government to make up for slashing the crew size was the company had to install a side-view mirror on the locomotive engineer’s side of the train.

He told the court that no significant changes were made to the company’s rules and practices when they reduced the size of the crews.

In response to questions from Thomas Walsh, one of Harding’s attorneys, Horan admitted workers didn’t like the crew reduction.

In their coverage of the trial, some of the media pointed to the bosses’ imposition of the one-person “crew” as an important factor in the disaster. It could “weigh heavily in the trial,” the Quebec City daily Le Soleil wrote in an editorial on the eve of the trial. The paper’s editors have called the trial an “injustice.”

Locomotive engineer Francois Daigle, one of three along with Harding who regularly ran the Nantes route, was another prosecution witness. He revealed a new example of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic negligence, testifying that the train that Harding took that night was in fact nearly 3,000 tons over its allowed weight limit. Daigle said rail bosses wouldn’t allow him to refuse to run a train he knew was over the maximum weight and it was common practice for the company’s top management to play loose with established railway regulations.

Harding and Labrie, both members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, could potentially face life in prison if convicted. The trial, which began Oct. 2, is expected to last into December. Jean Demaitre, a former low-level official of the now bankrupt and dissolved railroad, faces the same charges.

Messages in support of Harding and Labrie should be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC Canada H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9. E-mail:
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