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Rail Industry Vows To Learn From Fiery Accident In Canada


In the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, a grim search continues this morning amid the ash and debris left after a train carrying oil crashed into the town. As investigators try to figure out what caused the fiery accident, the question has emerged across the border: Could the same thing happen here in the U.S.? NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The U.S. and Canada have similar regulations governing railroads. In fact, the train involved in the Lac-Megantic accident travelled a route across the U.S.-Canada border. So far, officials are reluctant to draw too many conclusions about the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway accident. The chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board, Wendy Tadros, did offer this promise.

WENDY TADROS: The outcome of this investigation will be to improve railway safety. There will be lessons learned.

BRADY: The head of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, Edward Burkhardt, offered some details about the accident. On the street in Lac-Megantic, he confirmed what happened. Before his company's runaway train crashed into the town, it was parked about seven miles away, with no crew on board.

EDWARD BURKHARDT: Every railway in North America that I know of will park trains unmanned. I think that's probably come to a halt, or will come to a halt. It certainly has come to a halt on our railway. We're not going to do that anymore.

BRADY: That's Burkhardt's choice. But in the U.S., companies are still allowed to park trains unattended. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration requires the trains be fully secured. The agency lays out some basic requirements, but the specifics are left up to the company. Another concern in the Lac-Megantic accident: The train, while operating, had a crew of just one person.

In the U.S., one-person crews are very rare, according to the Railroad Administration. They are allowed, but the agency says complying with regulations usually requires two people, an engineer and a conductor. On the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train, there was just the engineer. CEO Edward Burkhardt blamed that person for not setting enough brakes to keep the train from rolling downhill.

BURKHARDT: It seems that adequate handbrakes were not set on this train, and it was the engineer's responsibility to set them.

BRADY: In a big accident, institutions often find one person to blame, says Professor Lloyd Burton. At the University of Colorado, Denver, he researches how to plan for disasters. Burtons says blaming one person can deflect attention from systemic problems.

LLOYD BURTON: In this case, flimsy rail cars hauling around highly toxic materials.

BRADY: Transportation Safety officials have warned railroads for years about the types of tankers involved in the Lac-Megantic accident, but they are still widely used in Canada and the U.S. Burton says typically, after a few high-profile accidents, policymakers react with new regulations, but he suggests another approach: identify potential problems and address them before people are hurt.

That sounds simple, but it's not easy to get funding for preventative work, says Burton. Right now, with record levels of oil being transported by train, though, Burton says the time is right for his approach.

BURTON: Then we really need to start thinking a little more creatively and proactively about how we're going to accommodate that increased traffic. Otherwise, we're going to be putting at risk anyone who lives along those transport corridors.

BRADY: The freight rail industry in the U.S. says preventing accidents is a priority, and statistics show rates have improved in recent decades. Still, Patti Reilly with the Association of American Railroads says the industry needs more information before it can make changes.

PATTI REILLY. ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN RAILROADS: When you don't know what caused an accident, it's impossible to say what kind of rule or regulation will be put in place to prevent that in the future.

BRADY: Reilly says you can be assured the railroad industry will learn from this tragedy. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.