July 23, 2013

No more one-man crews on oil trains, Canada says

The order applies to trains carrying hazardous cargo like the one operated by a Maine rail company that crashed, killing 47.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Canadian government issued an emergency order Tuesday that bans having a one-person crew on trains carrying hazardous cargo such as crude oil.

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In a July 9, 2013 file photo workers comb through debris after a run away oil train derailed July 6, 2013 causing explosions, fire and destoying parts of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Canadian transportation authorities banned one-man crews for trains with dangerous goods Tuesday, July 23, 2013, responding to calls for tougher regulations after the oil train derailment in Quebec killed 47 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

click image to enlarge

In this July 6 photo, flames and smoke rise from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, devastating the downtown and killing 47.

AP

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The order comes as Canadian transportation officials continue to investigate how a parked, unattended train operated by a Maine railroad company rolled down a hill and crashed in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, setting off explosions that killed 47 people.

The train was operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, based in Hermon.

Tuesday's order, effective immediately, requires that trains operating in Canada and carrying hazardous cargo have two crew members. It will apply to the Maine railroad when it's using its rail network in Quebec.

When the company's trains cross into Maine, however, a one-person crew is allowed. That's because the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates railroads in the United States, has no rules prohibiting one-person crews for trains carrying hazardous cargo.

The union that represents the Maine workers on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is launching a campaign to ban one-person crews in the U.S.

The "dangerous" practice needs to be eliminated through federal legislation and work rules in labor contracts, said Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which has 57,000 active and retired members.

In a written statement, Pierce called on Congress, the White House and other unions in the industry to join the campaign.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has lost much of its freight business since the disaster and is struggling to avoid bankruptcy. It operates in Maine and Quebec and serves customers in Vermont just south of the Quebec border.

Last week, the company laid off 79 of its 179 employees, with the work force in Maine bearing the brunt of the layoffs.

On July 6, a train hauling 72 cars of crude oil rolled down a hill after its engineer parked it and went to a hotel. Canada's Transportation Safety Board has ruled that the brakes weren't applied with sufficient force to hold the train in place.

Although the accident isn't being blamed on the practice of having a one-person crew, its use has come under scrutiny since then.

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railroad and president of its parent company, Chicago-based Rail World Inc., was among the first railroad operators in the U.S. to advocate for one-person crews, a money-saving measure made possible by the use of remote-control technology.

Burkhardt could not be reached for comment Tuesday. During a July 10 press conference in Lac-Megantic, he defended the one-person crew policy while blaming the engineer for failing to set enough hand brakes on the train.

"We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there's less exposure for employee injury and less distraction (for operators)," he said.

In Canada, regulators grant railroads the right to use a one-person crew if they prove that one person can handle all the required operating tasks on a train. However, such permission is unusual. Only two railroad companies are authorized to run one-person train crews carrying non-hazardous cargo: the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and a small railway that runs through the wilderness of northeastern Quebec and western Labrador.

John Bentley, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic used one-person crews before workers in Maine joined the union in 2006, and the railroad continued the practice afterward.

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