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Lac-Megantic, Quebec Train Incident

The disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec is a sad loss of life.  It was an accident which should not of happened.  I won't lie, I am definitely bias in this situation.  However I still must point out some obvious flaws in this story which make this story smell more like corporate sabotage then any sort of accident.

While some of the facts in this post may be outdated because of some new information, the majority of this post, is still relevant even if it might be a little convoluted.

I have been loosely following this story over the past few days.  And I have largely declined comment, until I gathered the information.  As it turns out, it seems that the crew left the train parked, in neutral and removed the reverser handle, which is basically the key to the train.  With this handle removed the train could not of been placed into powered movement.  These 'keys' are assigned to train crews when they are assigned their locomotive, and if they leave the train they are supposed to bring the reverser handle with them.

The train may remain running however, and railroads rarely will turn off large diesels which are idle unless they are forced to by environmental regulations.  It just will not be able to be put in gear, so to speak.

Railroad air breaks operate like truck breaks.  You apply pressure to release them.  This means that this article here: is full of bullshit.  Shutting down a locomotive would not release the breaks.  If anything it may be more likely to release the air pressure, and hold the breaks on.

UPDATED: Upon further investigation of the incident, the theory I had here on how the firefighters could of possibly set the train in motion, is ruled out.  It was a wild and very complicated theory anyhow.  At this point, it looks like there was no way the fire crews could of done anything to cause the train to start rolling.  My theory was maybe a fire fighter manipulated the break controls slightly, or maybe caught his pack on them as he was searching the cab, but apparently those are completely interlocked with the reverser lever.  That being said, if they disconnected the lead locomotive(s) from the consist (train), the 2nd locomotive would have its reverser lever in place, and therefore the controls could be manipulated.  The train could of pushed the disconnected locomotive(s) down the tracks.

So begin the conspiracy theories.

Adam Curry (of No Agenda) has a theory about pipelines.  Specifically that pipelines in the mid-east are the cause of much of the turmoil which is going on over there.  Everyone wants to be in control of the flow of fuel.  And pipelines are easy enough to target.   Well, as it seems, so are freight trains.

This incident smells like a 'terrorist' related incident.  Perhaps not a typical one however.  I wouldn't expect Al Queda to be claiming responsibility for it anytime soon.  But I believe that this is perhaps either politically motivated or corporate warfare.  In either case I believe it could possibly be being masked as an accident.  It is interesting that the TSB and authorities are quick to rule out terrorism, before the cause has even been established.  But they are also quick to accuse someone of criminal actions, either the driver or fire crews.

I suggest everyone get August 2013's copy of Trains Magazine.  This was printed and sent out to subscribers before the crash happened.   I received my August 2013 issue of Trains magazine in the mail on Monday July 8th, and on page 6, was a lengthy article proclaiming the safety and convenience of transporting crude oil by rail.  The article touts rails dominance in transporting crude oil, and outlines the Keystone XL proponents as 'attacking' the railroads.  The article also makes light of Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper's push for the Keystone XL pipeline, and his general distaste with transporting crude oil by rail.  The article itself does not mention the incident in Quebec, and I am sure it was printed and mailed out before the incident took place.  Kinda spooky how the article was placed in print just before this happened.

I would also like to point out that the 33 meme was utilized in this article.  In the article, it says that the Manhattan Institute's calculations purported to prove that railroad spills are 33 times more frequent then pipeline spills. The magazine notes that that figure was only accomplished by including spills of less then 5 gallons for railroad incidents, and excluding them for pipeline incidents.

Crude oil is also usually thick and needs to be heated by steam in order to flow as a fluid.  These insulated tank cares are fitted with steam pipes which can be hooked to a steam generator at the point of delivery to warm up the crude.  But without this action, the crude remains in a thick tar-like state inside the car.  In this case however, apparently this was lighter grade crude, which was more fluid, originating from the North Dakota fracking operations.

I am unsure about the ignition properties of crude oil.  I have never seen it myself, or 'played' with it.  But I do know that it has a lot of impurities which need to be refined out in order for it to become useful.  I know if you throw a match into diesel, or oil, or thicker, less refined oil products, they tend not to ignite, and rather extinguish the flame.  I imagine the same is true for crude oil.  So how did this explode into a blaze of fire?  Considering tank car technology is designed to prevent this sort of thing in a crash.

This is sad because if this is true, this could raise the security around rail travel more then it is, and ruin the hobby of railfanning for good.  Coincidentally, in the same issue of Trains Magazine, on page 10, there is a article about terrorism, railfans and the railroads.

The rail transport industry is always under attack somehow, and they really aren't the multi-billion dollar ventures that other corporations are.  That being said, they provide the cleanest and most convenient method for transporting bulk loads long distances.  They are also union based, and generally care about their employees and safety.  They can't afford not to.

It will be interesting to see what the 'official' findings come up with, but to me, it looks quite suspicious.


It seems other reports are beginning to catch onto this.  for example.   There they have a lovely diagram of how the breaking system works.  However they mention that while the air breaking system is not designed for long term use, and that independent breaks must be engaged to ensure the train stays in position.  This is pretty much SOP for train crews as well, and I neglected to mention that.  When leaving a train unattended, the crew applies the hand breaks on the first several cars and the locomotive.  These are separate mechanical breaks that press against the wheels tightly and lock into groves on the rear of the wheel.  In this case the Engineer applied 11 hand breaks, and the 5 locomotive hand breaks, which would of been enough to keep the train stationary.

The article mentioned above, however, also mentions that air breaks will bleed off over time.  While this is true, that over time the air pressure in the cars auxiliary reservoir may leak out, having this happen over such a short period of time, on every car in the train is unlikely unless they all had a similar defect.  The car pictured below has been sitting for a prolonged time, and still has ample pressure in its reservoir.

Here is my theory:

Someone first tried to start a fire on the train.  The fire didn't spread as much as they were hoping and the fire crews were able to respond and put it out quickly.  They waited for the crews to leave, and then released the handbreaks and walked down the length of the train.


At each car they pulled a handle near the center of the car.  This handle (pictured above) releases the pressure in the auxiliary reservoir, and therefore releases the breaks.  That is the only way I see this playing out at this point with the latest information.

I would also like to point out that if the train breaks were not set correctly originally when the engineer first parked the train, the train wouldn't of been there when the fire crews got there.

And that is an interesting note.  How did a fire erupt so large within a few minutes of the engineer leaving, that the fire was instantly reported and the fire crews were on scene so quickly?  But the engineer knew nothing of a fire?  He would of had to climb aboard eery locomotive to apply the hand breaks.  I would say that propellants were likely used to start that fire,  just saying...  And since that didn't work,  plan 2 was to derail the train.


NATX 310450 NATX 310450 (reference photo for similar type of car)

NATX 310470 was one of the identifiable tank cars at the crash site.  Tank cars in unit trains are usually always the same type.  These are AAR Type T108 tank cars.  According to my research these cars may have been manufactured in the 1970's for ethanol service.  NATX Numbered cars seem to originate from that era.  AAR Type T-108 cars are designated as steel tank, non-pressurized, and may be rubber lined (to carry corrosive liquids).  They are also designated at around 30,000 gal capacity.  The closest match I could find was this car pictured below (which is actually correct, being DOT-111A100W1 which is equal to a T-108 type car).  Which also specifies ethanol / methanol service.

The cars are built with a 7/16inch thick steel plate.  The problem I am finding is that this series of tank cars seems to be built for methanol / ethanol service.  There is a large tank car shortage due to the recent boom in transporting oil by rail, and there is a waiting period of several years for a backlog of about 30,000 tank cars.  So it is possible that oil was shipped in a tank car which wasn't designed for oil.  In either case, these cars still are built to withstand derailments.

This raises some questions.  While I would theorize that the tank cars were made to rupture by some sort of external agent, prior to this research, at this point it is looking like these cars may have been improperly utilized for this service.  If this is the case, it wasn't the engineers fault.  If the MMA did in-fact lease the train for this purpose, then they are to blame for leasing cars not to code.  If this train was assembled and leased by someone else, then it wasn't MMA's fault.

This photo from CTV shows fire crews investigating one of the salvaged tank cars. The oil leaking from the valves at the top may indicate that these cars were overfilled beyond capacity.

Assuming these cars were loaded properly, and are being used within specs, then I would have to suggest that there was an external force which caused the derailment and subsequent fire.  Why?   The train made it around a much sharper turn further up the line.  Lets look at the rail line this happened on.


 The sharp curve between Nantes and Megantic is even represented on this map, so let us look at it on Google.


That is a pretty sharp curve...  Where as the curve below where the derailment took place, is not quite as sharp.

curve2 One quote from Bernard Théberge, a 44 year old cook who witnesed the derailment suggested that two trains were rolling, presumably on a collision course. (it is a single track line) Two tracks, however, do meet here where the derailment occured.

The 5 locomotives continued onwards, while the tank cars derailed.  I believe the locomotives came to a stop within about 500 meters - indicating that their air breaks were set.  These locomotives are too old to utilize DPU.  I believe the locomotives on the train in question were actually leased units or units from the home railroad, and not MMA locomotives.  This is typical for unit trains.  In this case, the locomotive below is CEFX 3166, which is a leased unit.


The 6th locomotive which the Engineer used to pull the 9 tank cars away from the scene after the derailment, was another locomotive which I do not believe was originally part of the train.  It must of been on a siding nearby, or perhaps in the yard at the town.  It was an MMA locomotive.  The engineer is basically a hero for pulling the rest of the tank cars away from the inferno.  It is seen here parked at Nantes, where the runaway train was originally parked.  This is why there was confusion about the train perhaps decoupling and rolling backwards down the hill.  If this was the front of the train, it would of been heading West, and therefore would of been empty.  Durp?


So ruling out the fire fighters, and the engineer...  (Because if the engineer parked the train improperly, it would of been rolling by the time the fire trucks got there to extinguish the fire - and not an hour later) this only leaves foul play (sabotage) to cause the train to start rolling.  How the cars erupted into a giant fireball once they derailed is questionable as well.  (There is a rumor of a few propane cars or tanks being stored near where the derailment took place).  If these cars were being overfilled, and were not being used for what they were intended, then perhaps that played a part.  But I still question how this happened.  I would tend to believe that in combination with the mysterious engine fire, some foul play was involved in helping this along.  Despite the Class 2 line, and tank car issue, something else is at play here.  The major issue is how the train got rolling in the first place.

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