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Quebec train set too few brakes, with deadly result
The handbrake is the railroad industry’s ultimate fail-safe mechanism. It is supposed to help avert disasters like the one that engulfed a Canadian town on Saturday, when a runaway train loaded with oil hurtled downhill, derailed and exploded, leaving 50 people dead or missing.
The railroad initially blamed the catastrophe on the failure of the train’s pneumatic airbrakes after an engine fire, but the company acknowledged on Wednesday that the train’s engineer did not apply an adequate number of handbrakes to hold the train in place, and failed to comply with regulations.
A Reuters review of Canadian and U.S. regulations found that rail operators are given considerable leeway to decide how many handbrakes are sufficient for any given train, depending on track conditions and the weight of the cargo.
Operators are only required to apply enough of the handbrakes - one is found on every railcar - to ensure the train will not move even if other safety features, such as air brakes, falter.
The issue of handbrakes is likely to prove central to how blame is apportioned for the deadliest North American railroad disaster in at least two decades, experts said. The Canadian authorities have launched a criminal investigation, and Quebec police inspector Michel Forget has said criminal negligence is one lead they are looking into.
The question of whether enough of the train’s handbrakes were used may affect the liability of the rail company - Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) - and could spur an overhaul in regulation. One key question is if fault can be linked to MMA’s own handbrake practice, or to the lone engineer who operated the train, or to a regulatory code that gives rail operators too much slack, experts said.
MMA Chairman Ed Burkhardt told Reuters the engineer failed to comply with Canadian regulations. “If it had been complied with, we wouldn’t have had a runaway train,” he said.
Burkhardt said he could not be certain how many handbrakes were set but the engineer told him that 11 had been applied before he left the train on Friday night for a sleep break.
At least three independent railroad industry experts contacted by Reuters said they would have opted to apply at least 20 brakes and as many as 30 on a similar heavy train parked at a grade of 1.2 percent, which is the slope of the track where the runaway train had been parked.
By 1 a.m. on Saturday, the unmanned train was speeding toward Lac-Megantic, Quebec, around 7 miles (11 km) downhill from its parking spot in the municipality of Nantes.
The company and investigators have not released the engineer’s identity. A source familiar with the situation and Canadian media said his name is Tom Harding.
Reuters has not been able to reach Harding for comment. A phone number listed for him in Farnham, Quebec, was disconnected and a Reuters reporter who visited his address found no one home.
Burkhardt told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that the engineer was “under police control” but “not in jail.” Later in the day, police said the engineer is not under arrest and declined to further explain his status or name him.
TESTING THE BRAKES
The handbrake mechanism on a railcar usually consists of a large wheel in the cabin, connected to chains and levers that set brake pads underneath the train.
Canadian regulations require an engineer to test the train’s handbrakes after setting them. The engineer is required to attempt to pull the train back and forth, typically using the engine, to ensure the brakes can hold it in place.
Burkhardt, a decades-long rail industry veteran, said he did not know if the engineer performed the test.
Asked whether a potential failure to set or test enough handbrakes could increase MMA’s liability for the wreck, Burkhardt said, “We’re acknowledging liability. We’re not standing around saying we don’t have responsibility.”
He said the company had insurance but declined to give details.
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