Amtrak derailment. Photo: NTSB

Amtrak to install inward-facing loco cameras

US passenger operator Amtrak will install inward-facing video cameras to locomotives on the Northeast Corridor by the end of the year, following a derailment north of Philadelphia earlier this month.

Train 188 was operating between Washington, D.C. and New York, N.Y. when it derailed on a curve just after going through Philadelphia on May 12.

8 passengers were killed, and more than 200 are reportedly injured – at least 11 critically.

Initial investigations by the National Transport Safety Board have found the train accelerated up from 70 to 100 miles per hour (113 to 161km/h) in the 60 seconds leading up to the curve, which had an authorised speed limit of 50 miles per hour.

The train’s engineer reported to investigators that he didn’t remember anything after sounding the train’s horn when he passed through North Philadelphia station, which is over 4.5km away from the curve where the train derailed.

The NTSB investigation is ongoing.

But Amtrak has responded so far to the incident, with the announcement on May 26 (local time) that it will install inward-facing cameras on its fleet of ACS-64 locomotives in service on the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015.

All subsequently delivered locomotives will have the equipment installed before they go into service, the operator added.

“Inward-facing video cameras will help improve safety and serve as a valuable investigative tool,” Amtrak president Joe Boardman said in a media release, which did not reference the derailment.

“We have tested these cameras and will begin installation as an additional measure to enhance safety.”

The first installation will cover 70 locomotives.

Amtrak is also developing a plan for the installation of inward-facing cameras in the rest of its locomotive fleet.

The operator already has outward-facing cameras on its locomotives, along with “advanced systems that monitor locomotive and engineer actions.”

Level crossing removal project. Photo: Department of Transport Victoria

Cranbourne-Pakenham crossing removals released to market

Expressions of Interest are being welcomed for the removal of nine more Victorian level crossings under the Andrews Government’s plan to remove 50 crossings over the next eight years.

The tender for the removal of the first four level crossings was awarded earlier this month, to a joint venture of John Holland and KBR.

Transport minister Jacinta Allan on Monday night hinted that the EoI for the next nine level crossings was coming “very, very soon”.

And that was confirmed on Wednesday, with the EoI released for the nine identified crossings between Caulfield and Dandenong.

The package also includes rebuilding four stations at Carnegie, Murrumbeena, Clayton and Hughesdale, and the roll out of power and signalling upgrades along the line.

Delivering the works as a single package will allow works to be coordinated, saving money, reducing disruption and removing the crossings sooner, the government said.

The Cranbourne-Pakenham line is Melbourne’s busiest, but boom gates along the line are closed for up to 87 of the 120 minutes that make up the morning peak period on weekdays, according to government research.

While this slows down road commuters, level crossings have the added effect of making the rail network less productive, as trains often have to slow down significantly as they pass through them.

The inherent safety risks associated with level crossings also add to the desire to have them removed.

“Some of these boom gates are down for more than 80 minutes every morning,” Allan said. “They are choking our city and putting our lives at risk – they have to go.”

She said the removal of the level crossings, as well as the plan to buy 37 new high-capacity trains for the network, will boost capacity by 42% – creating space for an additional 11,000 passengers in peak hour.

An industry briefing will be held next week to provide more information for the EoI, which will close in late June.

Applications will be evaluated by the Level Crossing Removal Authority, which will then narrow them down to a shortlist of two bidders to continue through the process.

Work on the removal of the level crossings is expected to commence in 2016, and all nine level crossing removals will be completed by 2018, the government said.

“Removing every level crossing between Caulfield and Dandenong will reduce road congestion, make local communities safer, create jobs, and allow for more trains from Cranbourne, Pakenham and Gippsland,” Allan said.

Coal wagons Aurizon. Photo: Aurizon

Aurizon cancels EAs, may give back to investors

While headlines point to a potential bigger dividend from Aurizon in coming months, the rail operator has cancelled enterprise agreements with roughly 3500 workers.

The Queensland-based operator is in the middle of a prolonged bargaining saga with a number of unions. 12 expired agreements are still in dispute.

Under the Fair Work Act, expired enterprise agreements remain in place until they are replaced with new agreements.

But in what Aurizon boss Lance Hockridge at the time called “a landmark decision,” the Fair Work Commission in mid-April ruled that Aurizon could terminate the 12 agreements.

Hockridge had agreed to wait until an appeal by the unions had been heard by the Federal Court, but with that hearing taking place last week, the operator announced the termination of expired EAs on May 21.

Workers who were under the cancelled deals will now be covered only by the Rail Industry Award (2010), the National Employment Standards and individual contracts, which the operator describes as “less favourable” to workers.

“The termination of these old agreements means a range of legacy conditions that are a hangover from government ownership and restrict Aurizon from making changes in a competitive market, will disappear,” Hockridge said.

Aurizon says it has offered employees a 4% per year wage increase over three years, in return for the introduction of a range of work practices and productivity measures “already widely accepted in Australian industry”.

The sides can’t come together, but Hockridge says they are getting closer.

“We are pleased with progress in our negotiations with unions since the [Fair Work] Commission’s decision in April,” he said.

“That decision has certainly been a catalyst for renewed focus around the bargaining table on the outstanding issues.”

Meanwhile Aurizon is also reportedly considering a boosted dividend in its upcoming 2014/15 results, in an effort to address investor concerns over weak growth prospects.

“Aurizon’s strong balance sheet continues to offer capital management opportunities,” a company spokesperson was quoted as saying by the Australian Financial Review this week.

“Any further capital management opportunities will be considered by the board as part of the 2014/15 financial results.”

Confidence in the operator has also dipped after it acquired a share of a major iron ore project just months before the commodity’s price took a significant hit.

Aurizon now holds an exclusive contract to develop a railway for the West Pilbara Iron Ore Project, after it joined forces with Chinese steelmaker Baosteel to acquire Aquila Resources in a $1.1 billion bid in 2014.

But after averaging US$100.56 a tonne in May 2014, the iron ore price has dropped to roughly US$60 a tonne so far in May 2015.

On May 11, the operator announced a formal push-back of the Pilbara plans, but key shareholder Perpetual has expressed its desire to see the project permanently shelved by Aurizon.

Freight rail track - stock - credit Shutterstock (8)

ARA begins search for new CEO

Executive recruitment firm Jo Fisher has begun its search for the next chief executive of the Australasian Railway Association, with the role advertised late last week.

Former chief executive Bryan Nye formally left his post at the end of April. As a result, the industry body is currently being run by interim chief operating officer Phil Allan, and interim chairman Bob Herbert.

But the association is well on its way to finding its next chief executive, with job ads popping up in a number of different mediums last week.

Recruitment agency Jo Fisher posted one such ad to popular job site SEEK on Thursday, May 21.

“The Australasian Railway Association (ARA), the peak membership based body representing the rail industry – passengers, freight and track operators, contractors and suppliers – is seeking to appoint a leader to take the organisation through an exciting phase of change for the long term delivery of value adding services to its national membership,” the agency wrote.

“The role reports to a Board, representative of the industry and committed to policies and their advocacy to enhance the prosperity and standing of all facets of rail in the Australian and New Zealand economies.”

According to Jo Fisher, ARA’s next boss “will be experienced in leading change, with an ability to focus on the strategic direction for rail”.

“The ideal candidate will demonstrate political acumen with excellent stakeholder management, advocacy and media skills,” the ad continues.

“The role also entails a commercial orientation, the management of budgets, and the leadership of its Canberra-based professionals.”

See the ad here.

Melbourne tram. Photo State Government Victoria

Five findings of the infrastructure audit

Infrastructure Australia last week released its Australian Infrastructure Audit Report, and there’s a lot in it for the rail industry to digest.

The report, billed as Australia’s first-ever “comprehensive infrastructure audit,” suggests a huge amount of work is needed to get Australian infrastructure on pace with economic and population growth.

Five key factors stood out for the rail industry.


  1. There is a serious need for investment in transport

Releasing the report on Friday, Infrastructure Australia chairman Mark Birrell said Australia must act now before demand pressures affect living standards and economic competitiveness.

“Experiences of transport networks failing to keep pace with demand, water quality standards being uneven, energy costs being too high, telecommunication services being outdated, or freight corridors being neglected are now so common that they necessitate a strategic response,” Birrell said.

Infrastructure Australia said in its report that without investment in new transport capacity and/or means of managing demand, car travel times in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra are expected to increase by at least 20% in the most congested corridors by 2031.

“In some cases, travel times could more than double,” the report warns.

“Demand for public transport in the capital cities (measured by passenger kilometres travelled) is set to rise by 55% in Sydney, 121% in Melbourne, and an average of 89% across all capital cities.

“Unless peak period passenger loads are managed and capacity is increased, commuters in all capital cities will see more services experiencing ‘crush loadings’, where peak demand exceeds capacity.”

Both public transport and road infrastructure will need to be expanded to meet this growth in demand, the audit found.


  1. Australia needs a long-term infrastructure plan

The report says Australia would benefit from a strong and consistent pipeline of well-planned infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure Australia says a consistent pipeline “would provide greater certainty for infrastructure constructors and investors, and provide the basis for a well-resourced environment for project procurement and informed decision making”.

It said state and federal governments need to take action to make major project procurement more efficient.

This will reduce administrative burdens, and streamline assessment processes across governments, the report says.

“Integrated infrastructure and land-use planning is essential if there is to be strategic decision-making at all levels of government.

“Whilst there have been improvements in this area, progress has been slow in securing the many benefits that will be gained from an integrated approach to managing infrastructure challenges.”

A key benefit of a more cooperative approach to infrastructure, the report says, would be the establishment of best practice principles for infrastructure planning, procurement, delivery and operation.

“Improvements in infrastructure project appraisal and project selection (including the consistent use and transparent reporting of cost benefit analyses) are necessary if Australians expectations are to be realised,” the report explains.


  1. Rail freight’s share will grow in the future, due to bulk

Infrastructure Australia predicts the mode share of rail freight within the national freight task to grow over the period to 2031, but says this will not be due to a major shift of container freight onto the rail network.

“This is mostly due to increased haulage of minerals for export,” the independent body explained.

“Demand for national rail infrastructure is projected to grow, especially in WA, Queensland and NSW.”

WA accounts for roughly 50% of the national rail freight value-add, due to mining in the Pilbara, and the audit projects that the value-add from rail freight services will grow to $9.5 billion in 2031, an increase of 75%.


  1. Total public and private funding needs to increase

As a proportion of GDP, spending on infrastructure has been higher in the last five years than in the preceding 20 years.

But the audit finds that fiscal pressures – such as the need to fund health, retirement and other social welfare programs – mean governments will struggle to maintain current levels of infrastructure spending in the medium to long term.

“Private investment in infrastructure has grown, with more private owners and developers of infrastructure,” the audit recognises.

“Creating the conditions for further private investment is an important strategy in meeting future infrastructure needs.”

To do this, the report says, Australia will have to increase the amount of funding available from both public and private sources, to maintain and grow our infrastructure networks.

“Current funding arrangements are unsustainable,” Infrastructure Australia said, “particularly for the transport sector.”

The audit says reform is needed.

“While users contribute a proportion of the cost of transport infrastructure through licensing and registration, fuel excise, public transport tickets and freight network access charges, governments still pay the lion’s share.

“The current system therefore relies on limited revenue sources … and it does not ensure that the revenue is directed to transport outlays, new projects or improved performance of networks.”

If there is no change to this, the report warns, maintenance of existing assets would need to be cut back, and new projects aimed at maintaining or raising levels of service in our cities and regions would likely not proceed.


  1. We need to sweat our assets

Infrastructure Australia urged a newfound focus on resilience and improved maintenance, noting that existing assets will need to be maximised to cope with future growth.

“Maintenance and resilience are major themes in the audit,” the independent body said on Friday.

“Most of the infrastructure that Australians will use in 2031 has already been built, but maintenance standards are often below par.

“Service providers will need to improve whole-of-life asset management processes, including adequate long-term funding strategies, to ensure infrastructure networks are able to provide reasonable levels of service in the future.”


Fremantle Rail Bridge. Photo: WA PTA

Early warning system for hazardous bridge

The Public Transport Authority of WA has begun work on an early warning system for trains about to cross the Fremantle Rail Bridge, after a series of dangerous incidents in recent years.

In August 2014, strong currents caused a container ship to break its mooring and crash into the bridge, closing it for 12 days for inspection by structural engineers.

That followed a 2011 incident, in which a refuelling ship crashed into the bridge, damaging the overhead traction wiring system and cutting rail access in and out of the port.

The state has responded with several measures aimed at reducing the danger of shipping incidents around the rail bridge, a number of which are already completed or underway.

One of those measures: state transport minister Dean Nalder announced the implementation of an early warning system had begun on May 25.

“This early warning system will provide an extra level of safety by alerting the PTA, giving them the ability to switch the signals to red and stopping trains from crossing the bridge,” Nalder said.

The project is estimated to be completed in September 2016.

The installation is one of several initiatives under way on and around the bridge, which the state has packaged together.

Also included in the works has been a $4.4 million project to remove and replace more than 1000 rail sleepers on the bridge, which was completed in early 2015.

Main Roads WA, on behalf or the PTA, will be completing pier strengthening works on the bridge. The work is expected to be complete in late-2016.

A $21.1 million contract has been awarded to York Civil and Marine & Civil to construct new concrete and steel bollards downstream from the rail bridge to absorb significant force in the case of impact by a vessel.

And finally, a new LED message board has been installed to improve vessel navigation through the southern channel.

Port of Fremantle - Photo Fremantle Ports

Mayor fears Freo port sale could be bad for rail

Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt is concerned the sale of the port to a profit-focused, private operator will lock the city into a road-based freight model at the expense of investment in rail infrastructure.

“This is the worst possible time to privatise the port,” Pettitt said.

“The very future and location of the inner-harbour is under serious debate. Key questions such as how many containers should go through the inner harbour and when key parts of the port should be moved are very live debates.”

It was announced earlier this month that Fremantle Ports would be privatised as the state government moves to pay for major projects and reduce debt through a long-term lease.

State premier Colin Barnett dropped the bombshell news while reading the state budget on May 14, as WA faces a predicted net operating balance deficit of $2.7bn for 2015/16 and a net debt projection of $31bn by June 30, 2016.

Barnett acknowledged that he had previously said the state government would not be selling utilities or ports.

He added that the sale of the port was not a condition of a $499m Federal government package, as that funding was directly assigned by the Commonwealth to a selection of road projects around WA.

But he said the government had decided to sell Fremantle Ports to continue building the state’s economic infrastructure without adding to its debt.

State treasurer Mike Nahan said the government was responding to the “perfect storm” of economic conditions which led to revenues falling $3.9bn in 2015/16 (down 13%), and a forecast $10.21bn decline between 2014/15 and 2017/18.

“Commodity prices have plummeted, our share of GST revenue has been driven to record lows and softening economic conditions have directly reduced all other major sources of state tax revenue,” Nahan reasoned.

He said the sale of the Kwinana Bulk Terminal – announced in the first tranche in 2014 alongside Utah Point bulk terminal at Port Hedland – will be incorporated into the “disposal” of the Fremantle Port Authority’s assets and operations.

He said the decision to package the deal “significantly broadens” the size and appeal of the transaction to international investors and trade buyers, as well as the anticipated proceeds to the state.

However, returns from the sale will not be reflected until transactions are complete.

Ports Australia’s chief David Anderson told Rail Express sister publication Lloyd’s List Australia that he was not surprised by the asset sale announcement and that his instincts told him “it was coming”.

While past WA governments of either persuasion have been committed to keeping port authorities in government ownership, Anderson said the current regime has become increasingly pragmatic and most assets are in the hands of the private sector.

“But I think [the state government] will get a good price for Fremantle,” he said.

“I would be surprised if they didn’t throw out the tender for the long-term lease globally, but I certainly think they would encourage domestic investors.

“WA is particularly sensitive, not just about home grown things but WA things – I mean they don’t even like people from the east telling them what to do, let alone anybody from overseas.”

Anderson said there will also be increasing pressure to have oversight on port pricing, alluding to the 767% increase in rent aimed at DP World Australia for its West Swanson Dock terminal in Melbourne.

The Port of Melbourne privatisation case has prompted interest in the contracts that state governments release when they put these assets out to long-term lease.

“In some of the other port privatisation models, new shareholders have been pretty unfettered by the contracts that the governments provided to them on the basis that they will get the maximum buck by not hindering the new owners in the way that they have,” Anderson said.

“And as that’s now coming back to roost. I think people are getting a bit concerned about it.”

DP World Australia and Asciano-owned stevedore Patrick are also looking at Fremantle with interest as their respective long-term leases for the adjoining container terminals on North Quay, will expire in 2017.

Fremantle Ports publicly announced the call for expressions of interest in the terminals late-2014.

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia chief Brendan Lyon said asset sales are the only real option to rehabilitate WA’s budget to pay for new infrastructure.

“With the right structures, WA can expect very healthy interest from investors in the port of Fremantle, energy generation and the other assets and businesses earmarked for sale,” Lyon said.

“The sale and lease of public assets gives WA breathing room and flexibility to make the infrastructure investments to soften the landing from the mining boom and transition to new economic drivers.

“The government has made the right call on asset recycling.”

Fremantle Port Authority’s asset investment program for 2015/16 to 2018/19 totals $190.8m.

Level crossing Victoria - Photo: Creative Commons

Friday is Walk Safe to School Day

The TrackSAFE Foundation is encouraging primary school children to take extra care when heading to school on Friday for national ‘Walk Safely to School Day’.

General Manager of the TrackSAFE Foundation, Naomi Frauenfelder, said that WSTSD provided an opportunity for parents and carers of primary school-aged children to promote safe pedestrian behaviour, not only when crossing roads but also when near railway lines and pedestrian crossings.

“An estimated 250,000 Australian school students use the rail network to commute to school, largely unsupervised, each day,” Frauenfelder said.

“It is therefore important that days like ‘Walk Safely to School Day’ serve as a reminder to children and their parents of the risks involved when crossing or standing near rail lines.”

Frauenfelder said students regularly take risks near platform edges, and at pedestrian crossings.

“This is why TrackSAFE has developed an Australian first, national education initiative called ‘Be on the Safe Side’, for primary school students to learn about train and track safety,” she explained.

Be on the Safe Side provides teachers with learning resources to conduct engaging student- centred lessons within various Australian Curriculum learning areas with a train and track safety theme.

TrackSAFE says the program provides consistency in rail safety education throughout Australia, and empowers students to improve their own and others’ safety when they are near trains and train tracks.

“I encourage all children heading to school today to look, think and be on the safe side,” Frauenfelder continued.

“Stand behind the yellow line; hop off your skateboard or bike when crossing tracks; wait when the lights are flashing and gates are closed; and remove your headphones at crossing and on station platforms.”

For more visit

Aurizon, Lance Hockridge - Photo Aurizon

How Aurizon will hit its ambitious workforce goal

Aurizon boss Lance Hockridge has delivered an impassioned address at the AHRI Diversity & Inclusion Conference, detailing the steps the operator has taken to reduce gender inequity in its workforce.

“Women make up just under 15% of our entire workforce,” Hockridge told the conference on May 18. “In our operational area, this is far lower.”

Aurizon has around 6% female traincrew, 5% female tradespeople and 10% female engineers, he detailed.

“As CEO you occasionally hear murmurs in the lifts and corridors of your workplace. It’s often difficult to appreciate, with clarity and insight, some of the people issues that might be at play at any given time.”

Looking to act on the chatter he had heard, Hockridge brought together a group of female executives, he said, for a frank discussion about issues they face as women at Aurizon.

“Quite honestly,” he said, “I was dumbfounded by what I heard.

“The tactics of exclusion, the undermining behaviour and the unconscious – and perhaps not so unconscious – bias that prevented these and other women from rising to the top.”

A parent with two school-aged children of both sexes, Hockridge said he would never accept the notion that they wouldn’t have the same opportunities in education, in the workforce and in life.

“Similarly I would in no way by prepared to turn a blind eye to gender inequity playing out in an organisation I led.

“I have never considered diversity to be about ideology or political correctness. This is so much more than just ‘the right thing to do’,” he argued.

“Increasing the talent pool makes good commercial sense to our organisation.”

Hockridge compared gender inequity issue to workforce safety.

“When I first joined Aurizon people told me we would always have workplace accidents because that was the nature of working in the railway,” he recalled.

“I did not – and will not – ever accept this. And needless to say after significant cultural change and much focus, our safety performance has gone from substandard to now approaching world-class.”

Building off his experience shifting Aurizon’s safety culture, Hockridge said he knew that to improve gender inequity in the company’s workforce he would need to “initiate a process that would be uncomfortable and confronting for some parts of our workforce”.

Midway through last year, he set a five-year aspirational target to increase female representation at Aurizon to 30%.

“In a heavy industry like ours, with such low female participation, this target is bold, and it will be difficult to achieve,” he conceded.

“I’ve received all sorts of feedback about its implementation. It’s fair to say it has caused the organisation, or at least big parts of it, to take a very deep breath.”

A number of early initiatives toward Aurizon’s ambitious target have included open discussions with both male and female members of its workforce, as well as a CEO Rotation Program, which allows high potential women to work with Hockridge four months at a time.

“We also have a transition to operations program for women in corporate roles wanting to take a leap of faith and transition into the operational world through an 18 month program through our supply chain,” Hockridge added.

An employee referral program has also been introduce, to reward employees for successfully referring women to operational roles, and indigenous people to any role in Aurizon, the chief executive said.

Collectively, Hockridge said Aurizon’s initiatives so far have already driven tangible results.

For the first time, Aurizon’s female voluntary turnover rate is the same as for men – reducing from 15.5% in 2012 to 5.4% at the end of 2013/14.

There has also been an increase in female representation in the company’s management leadership team, from 21% to 26%m, and females now make up 34% of Aurizon’s middle management roles.

“Almost 27% of all trainees, apprentices and graduates are female,” Hockridge outlined. “And, of the positions filled by females last year, 33% were appointed to non-office based roles representing an increase of 19%.

“Clearly we are not there yet, but it’s encouraging to get some hard earned runs on the board,” Hockridge continued.

“This is an issue of national and global importance. I encourage you to spread that message far and wide, to challenge and disrupt the status quo in your organisations.

“Collectively we can make the changes that, while they may feel uncomfortable today, are critical to achieving fairness, equity and productivity in our society.”

AHRI is the Australian Human Resources Institute. Its Inclusion and Diversity Conference took place in Sydney, on Monday, May 18.

Lac megantic day of accident. Photo Creative Commons Sûreté du Québec

The Lac-Mégantic rail accident: When railway safety is taken for granted

Director of Investigations for the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, Kirby Jang, recently reviewed the catastrophic Lac-Mégantic rail accident, and how his team proceeded with their investigation.

Jang was among the keynote speakers at RISSB’s 2015 Rail Safety Conference.

In a speech at the conference he detailed the factors leading up to the incident, how his team conducted their objective investigation, and their respective findings and recommendations on railway safety for the company involved as well as the other relevant industries.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada was created under the Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board Act on March 29, 1990.

Formed as a result of several high-profile accidents, the TSB runs an engineering laboratory in Ottawa, Ontario, with its headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec, and eight other regional offices.

The TSB’s new watch list covers safety management oversight, a very prominent feature highlighted in the Lac-Mégantic accident.


The night of the Lac-Mégantic rail accident

On 6 July, 2013, at around 1:15 a.m., an unattended freight train transporting 72 tank cars of approximately 7.7 million litres of petroleum crude oil rolled downhill and derailed from its mainline at the resort town of Lac-Mégantic, resulting in a deadly fire and explosion which destroyed a large area of the downtown’s core and caused the death of 47 local residents.

Earlier in the night, late on July 5, a single-person-operated MMA train (Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railway) was parked on a descending grade on the main track right at the heart of the town of Lac-Mégantic.

After shutting down four of the locomotive brakes, the train’s engineer applied seven handbrakes.

As per railway rules, handbrakes alone must be capable of holding a train. But that must be verified by performing the “brake efficiency test”.

During the test however, the locomotive brakes were left running, which meant that the train was actually being held by a combination of handbrakes and airbrakes, giving the engineer the wrong impression that the handbrakes alone were enough to hold the train.

Before leaving the train, the engineer contacted two rail traffic controllers: one in Quebec to inform them that the train was secure, and another in Bangor, Maine, to report the smoking lead locomotive that had been showing some problems throughout the trip and the difficulties it might present the next crew.

With the excessive black and white smoke expected to settle, it was agreed to leave the train as it was and to deal with the situation the morning after.

Just a few minutes after the engineer left for the night, the Nantes fire department responded to a 911 call of a fire on the train.

Firefighters successfully extinguished the blaze on the lead locomotive by shutting the fuel off. Following railway instructions, responders turned the electric brakes off. After discussing the situation with the rail traffic controller in Farnham and an MMA employee dispatched to the area, everyone left for the night.

With all the locomotive brakes shut down, the airbrake system started to lose pressure, causing the brakes to be less effective.

Just before 1:00 a.m., air pressure on the train dropped to a point where the combination of airbrakes and handbrakes could no longer hold the train.

With practically no brake holding the train, it started rolling downhill to the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic, 7 miles away, picking up speed to up to 65 mph.

The train derailed at a crossing, and almost all of the 7 million litres of crude oil began pouring into the streets. Fire was almost instantaneous.

The ensuing blaze and explosions resulted in the death of 47 residents. In addition, more than 2,000 citizens were forced to evacuate from their homes and a huge part of the downtown Lac-Mégantic area was destroyed.


Why so much damage?

Jang explained that in North America, the primary tank car implemented for use for dangerous goods is the TLT U.S. DOT-111 tank car, whose specifications have been designed many years ago.

Most of the tank cars in Lac-Mégantic were built between 1980 and 2012.

Jang further explained how a tank car’s performance is assessed based on three categories, namely puncture resistance, top and bottom feedings protection, and thermal resistance.

An inventory of the Lac-Mégantic accident revealed the following figures: 63 derailed cars, 60% shell punctures, 50 head punctures, 32 top feedings, pressure release devices, thermal tears, among others.


Emergency response

On the night of the Lac-Mégantic incident, the provincial police were immediately dispatched as soon as 911 calls were made. With the mutual aid agreement between the 80 municipalities, thousands of firefighters were deployed on the site over the next few days, primarily focused on evacuating the residents and preventing the fire from spreading farther.

Unable to fight a petroleum-fuelled fire with water, emergency crews had to transport special fire-retardant foam from the Ultramar refinery in Lévis.

The foam considerably helped the firefighters, Jang reported.

He was quick to point out how well-coordinated the emergency response was, with the Lac-Mégantic fire chief essentially designated as the incident commander.

The TSB director admired how the unified command system and proper distribution of emergency tasks among the various agencies contributed to the entire effort being harmoniously carried out and implemented.

Jang said the investigation team was immediately deployed to the occurrence site to carry out their investigation.


TSB deployment activities and challenges

Jang described Lac-Mégantic as by far the largest investigation he’s handled in his career.

As such, he and his TSB team was bombarded with a number of challenges that he needed to resolve for the successful completion of the investigation:

  • Jurisdiction Coverage. One of the largest challenges that Jang faced in Lac-Mégantic was on the matter of jurisdiction. At the national level, the company involved was an American business operating on Canadian soil, which means various provincial and federal organisations were involved and had interests with the incident.
  • Parallel Criminal Investigation. The Lac-Mégantic incident was treated as a crime scene where parallel criminal investigations were carried out. Many parts of the area where the incident happened had to be cordoned off as there was a need to preserve evidence.
  • Temperature and Location. The Lac-Mégantic disaster happened in the middle of summer where temperatures rose to around 40°C, making it more difficult and strenuous for the responders on site to go about their duties.
  • Workers’ Occupational Safety. The TSB likewise had to keep into consideration the occupational safety of all the workers involved, ensuring that everyone had appropriate personal protective equipment on. They had to make sure policemen, firefighters, engineers, and all the other workers were properly protected against the hazards of the investigation that included physical, chemical, heat, biohazards, and other minute particles.
  • Media Coverage. The Lac-Mégantic rail accident was a huge media story. TSB was overwhelmed with the large number of information requests and third-party experts that swarmed the area. As an investigation agency, Jang explained, the TSB needed to talk factually about what happened without getting into any speculations or analyses. They had to implement some damage control to ensure the information that the media publicized was objective and concrete instead of being purely theoretical.
  • A Complex Investigation. The TSB had to examine all aspects of the incident in detail from the train operation to the train brakes, the use of single-person train operator, tracking equipment maintenance, tank car performance, product characteristics, the properties of crude oil, etc.
  • Logistics. Because Lac-Mégantic is a small resort town, finding decent hotel accommodations for the thousands of the emergency responders deployed for the accident was a big challenge. Meetings and other briefings had to be conducted at the command post.
  • Communications. Right after news of the incident reached the TBS, several communications advisers were immediately deployed to the site. Live media events had to be organised, and this went nonstop for the next few days and over the three-week period after the tragedy.


Keeping the people informed

Jang admitted that part of their responsibilities during an investigation is keeping the public well informed.

To do this, they had an active investigation page on their website that was regularly updated in terms of statistics and figures related to the incident. Questions and other queries were also accommodated and answered through TSB’s social media accounts.

Over the 13-month investigation, the TSB made sure that they were able to promptly hand out safety communications, advisory and information letters, and recommendations prior to releasing their final report.


Lessons learned

In closing his talk Jang enumerated the specific recommendations that the TSB submitted in its August 2013 report:

  • Proper auditing of safety management systems. The TSB suggested that Transport Canada must regularly check their railways’ safety management systems and ensure that they are working effectively and that they are being implemented as designed.
  • Enhanced protection standards for Class 111 tank cars. The TSB recommended all DOT-111 tank cars to be retired, noting that the tank cars used in the Lac-Mégantic incident were old DOT-111 railcars.
  • Route planning analysis. The TSB proposed that railway companies conduct strategic route planning as well improve on train operations particularly for those trains carrying dangerous goods. This could mean identifying and using those routes with less risk for those operations with multiple routes available or identifying ways to medicate the risks along those operations with single routes available.
  • Creation of emergency response assistance plans. The TSB wants regulators to put Emergency Response Assistance Plans in place in the event that accidents and other untoward incidents happen when transporting hazardous materials, ensuring that appropriate emergency equipment and personnel are readily available along the route.
  • Physical defences to prevent runaways. The TSB advised Transport Canada to require the use of wheel chocks for parked trains or the installation of state-of-the-art braking technology to keep parked trains in place.