Quebec Train Catastrophe Driving Questions About Transportation

by Jana Ritter - Published: 7/11/2013

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train that broke loose early Saturday and hurtled downhill through the darkness nearly seven miles before jumping the tracks in eastern Quebec – has killed at least 15 people, injured 100's and many are still missing. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil and at least five exploded, causing major damage to a devastated Quebec town.


What may come as a shock to some, is that rail dispatchers had no chance to warn anyone during the runaway train's 18-minute journey because they didn't know it was happening themselves, Transportation Safety Board officials said. Such warning systems are in place on busier lines but not on secondary lines. The wreck forced nearly 6000 people to evacuate their home and although most were allowed to return by Tuesday, the next huge problem has been focused on how to stop waves of crude oil spilled in the disaster from reaching the St. Lawrence River - the backbone of the province's water supply.

While the cause of this tragic train wreck is still under investigation, the company'[s CEO is blaming the train operator for failing to set the brakes. It is also being reported that the operator had alcohol in his system as well. Either way, it raises similar controversy currently being debated in the trucking industry, since the new HOS changes came into effect July 1st. The common element between the two is that transporting things such as crude oil can put public safety into the hands of a single individual – the person operating a train or truck. Inevitably safe transportation has some external cost and the question is how to limit those costs to third parties while still meeting people's needs for goods.

Petroleum, whether crude or refined, is flammable, and it also is harmful to the environment. It is usually not explosive in the way natural or LP gases are, though in Quebec, there was an explosion. So when spilled in inhabited areas, life and property are threatened. Most oil is moved by pipeline, but shipments by railroad tank cars and tanker trucks are making a remarkable resurgence largely because new pipelines are not being built fast enough to keep up with expanding production in nontraditional areas like North Dakota.

While trains and trucks are generally faster and much more flexible, the direct costs of moving oil and gas by pipeline are much cheaper. While we have yet to answer the question about which mode of transport poses the greater danger to life, property and the environment, pipeline spills tend to be larger, with many thousands of gallons often spilling before the leak is detected and the line shut down. Also, natural gas pipeline accidents cause more deaths than ones of crude oil and are much harder to contain than the rare accidents occurring with a trucks and cars of trains.

So as residents of potential areas affected by the Keystone pipeline continue to oppose what will jeopardize their safety, truck drivers are continuing to oppose federal safety regulations that will affect their incomes.