Workers Vanguard No. 1033
1 November 2013
Quebec Rail Disaster
Lac-Mégantic Industrial Murder
The following article originally appeared in Spartacist Canada No. 178 (Fall 2013), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste.
In the early morning hours of July 6, 47 people burned to death in the runaway train explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Most were enjoying an evening out at Musi-Café, a popular hangout in the centre of this industrial and tourist town of 6,000 on the southern part of the Chaudière River, near the border with Maine. Ignited by 72 unattended and shoddily designed tank cars of crude oil that rolled down a steep hill and slammed into the town, at least 30 buildings burned to the ground. Many others remain uninhabitable due to soil contamination, while drinking water was tainted by 100,000 litres of crude spilling into the river and the lake.
This tragedy was no accident. It was shaped by money-pinching cutbacks, layoffs and criminal neglect by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) rail company, owned by Edward Burkhardt’s Rail World of Chicago. It also arose ineluctably from the drive for profits by the huge Canadian railway conglomerates, and was aided and abetted by the federal government’s gutting of safety regulations at the behest of these same rail bosses.
About a decade ago, Canadian Pacific [CP] abandoned or sold off unprofitable rail lines in eastern Quebec and New Brunswick to smaller companies like MMA, even though these lines are essential to get products to the Atlantic ports. With the vast expansion of North American oil production, notably in the Alberta tar sands, transport of crude oil by train has now skyrocketed: up from about 500 carloads four years ago to a projected 140,000 this year. The Lac-Mégantic death train was carrying crude from booming North Dakota for processing at the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. In 1994, the government’s own safety officials warned that 80 percent of the rail tanker fleet was unsafe for carrying oil—yet to this day most shipments are carried in such cars, which have a history of puncturing during accidents. Meanwhile, the government has cut safety inspections across the board, claiming the companies would “self-regulate.”
The irrationality of organizing something as essential to society as railways on a for-profit basis has made the rail system a disaster waiting to happen. Last year alone saw 1,011 train accidents in Canada: nearly three a day. Ten days before the Lac-Mégantic inferno, CP management provided a classic instance of corporate arrogance and greed in insisting on running a freight train over a structurally compromised bridge in Calgary in the middle of that city’s flood disaster. The ensuing collapse led to a needless diversion of emergency personnel from flood relief. CP CEO Hunter Harrison justified this act of criminal stupidity by saying that if this particular train had not run, this would amount to “jeopardizing commerce.”
At the heart of the Lac-Mégantic disaster is the naked pursuit of profit that drives the capitalist system. This system, which serves the interests of a tiny handful of businessmen and financiers, is based on the exploitation of the working class in the factories, mines and transport systems. Incapable of meeting the basic needs of the population, capitalism is a deadly threat to our health and safety. Acts of industrial mass murder such as Lac-Mégantic are written off as collateral damage, accounted for in insurance premiums with the costs fobbed off to small-town governments and the Red Cross—if you’re lucky.
Ed Burkhardt and the Destruction of Public Railways
Edward Burkhardt is now deservedly hated throughout Quebec. Initially, the MMA chairman said baldly that he felt no responsibility for the tragedy. Then he hinted at “sabotage” and blamed firefighters in the nearby town of Nantes, where the train started its uncontrolled descent shortly after one of the badly maintained locomotives caught fire. Finally, he blamed and suspended the engineer, Tom Harding, who, as per company policy, had secured the train for the night and was resting in a local hotel when the tragedy occurred.
This further infuriated the people of Lac-Mégantic, who overwhelmingly refused to blame the overworked Anglo Québécois train operator. As one francophone resident put it when Burkhardt visited the town: “He accuses the little guy who is following company orders.” The mother of a waitress killed at Musi-Café denounced the MMA chair as “a reckless man” who “played—and he is still playing—with people’s lives.” A man who lost three relatives said angrily: “I wanted to see the assassin with my own eyes.”
As a further slap in the face, MMA proceeded to lay off about 80 workers, including 19 in Quebec. Daniel Roy, Quebec director of the Steelworkers union, which organizes MMA workers, reacted:
“We were having trouble doing the work we had to do with the numbers we had.... Now with 19 less, people are worried about safety.
“I’ll tell you that there’s a lot of worker anger towards the company right now.”
—Toronto Sun, 17 July
Having refused to pay a red cent toward the recovery efforts—which will cost upwards of $200 million—MMA has now secured its assets through bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and Canada.
In its ten-year history, this small rail company has set records for accidents and derailments among North American railways. Its rails and signage are so poorly maintained that residents can tell where the CP line ends and MMA starts on the south shore of Montreal. The tracks are so damaged that MMA ordered its operators to slow down to as little as five miles an hour on sections of the line between Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Lac-Mégantic! And this is only a small part of the picture for Burkhardt and Rail World, who specialize in “rescuing” rail lines abandoned by governments and bigger railways and then further driving down safety and work conditions.
In 1996, when Burkhardt headed Wisconsin Central, one of his trains carrying flammable materials derailed in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, causing the evacuation of the entire town for 16 days. The crash was caused by a broken switch-point rail that the company had not properly maintained. A year later, a worker in Fond du Lac, also in Wisconsin, was killed when a Wisconsin Central freight train crashed into a factory. Burkhardt went on to head privatized Tranz Rail in New Zealand, which became notorious for its appalling safety and workplace injury record. He bought up four newly privatized rail companies in Britain, setting up the English, Welsh & Scottish Railway and moving to slash the workforce by nearly 40 percent. He also led the privatized Australian Transport Network and, under Rail World, took over former government-owned lines in Estonia, Poland and Ukraine.
Everywhere, this character has used the same methods of slashing wages and safety measures, with predictable results. Burkhardt is particularly notorious for pushing for one-man crews on freight trains. Kevin Moore, chairman of the union that represents MMA workers in Maine, underlined the obvious: “He thinks when you have two people in the cabin, the second person could be a distraction…. I’ve never seen that. The second person has always been a benefit, not a distraction” (Globe and Mail, 21 July). The Tory government in Ottawa obligingly approved one-man operation for MMA’s trains in Canada.
While MMA and Rail World are particularly vicious in imposing such measures, they are not an aberration. The Canadian rail bosses’ neglect of basic maintenance and safety produces fatality after fatality. The broader toll of industrial death and injury is astronomical. In Ontario, one worker dies from a workplace accident on average every day. Countrywide, about 1,000 workplace deaths are reported annually. The picture is even starker in poor, semicolonial countries: a single factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year killed over 1,100 workers [see “Capitalist Profit Drive Kills,” WV No. 1023, 3 May]. Everywhere, industrial murder is the direct product of the giant capitalist corporations’ drive for ever greater profits.
Expropriate the Railways! For a Planned Socialist Economy!
Key to the beginnings of industrialization and used as a tool of “nation-building” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of railway operation in Canada is laid down on a bed of profiteering, corruption, racism and death. In British Columbia [B.C.], at least 600 Chinese migrant labourers, denied any rights and sent on the most dangerous jobs, died in the construction of Canadian Pacific’s rail line. Trains buried in avalanches, falling into rivers and other tragedies marked the early years of Canadian rail operations. With the aging of the railways, continued neglect in maintenance and staff cutbacks, avoidable tragedies have continued to this day.
CP and the older Grand Trunk Railway in Eastern Canada (later folded into Canadian National) were born of greed and corruption. John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister, was famously driven from office over bribes taken from rail magnates, only to be re-elected later on. To compensate for their “risks,” Canadian Pacific’s owners were given thousands of acres of valuable land where no railways were ever built, ensuring enormous profits for generations of capitalist investors.
The federal government has always doled out grants and enacted policies which guaranteed that money would keep flowing to the rail barons. But provincial and municipal governments have dirty hands as well. In B.C., the highly believable corruption allegations surrounding the sale of government-owned B.C. Rail by the Gordon Campbell Liberals in the early 2000s have not been refuted. As for the Quebec government, its Caisse de Dépôt investment fund invested a cool seven million dollars in (now practically worthless) shares of MMA alone!
From the perspective of the working class, central responsibility for allowing the unending cutbacks, layoffs and criminal indifference to safety pushed by the bosses lies with the trade-union bureaucracy, which has in the main accepted such measures without a fight. Often hiding behind government intervention (railway strikes are usually legislated back to work rapidly), and working with their allies in the social-democratic NDP [New Democratic Party], the union tops work to promote “labour peace” and the national interests of Canadian capitalism. What’s required is a perspective of hard class struggle against the railway bosses and the government that stands behind them, including by rallying the labour movement when necessary to defy back-to-work laws. A single winning Canada-wide rail strike would do vastly more for safety than tens of thousands of pages of Transportation Safety Board recommendations!
Various petty-bourgeois environmentalists, echoed by self-styled “ecosocialists,” have sought to divert anger over the Lac-Mégantic disaster into campaigns against the transport of fossil fuels. The idea that a modern industrial society could currently do without oil and gas is a utopian fantasy, whose actual consequences would be retrograde for workers and the poor. Everything from food production to construction, transportation and manufacturing industries requires vast quantities of energy. Oil and gas need to be transported, whether by pipelines, trains, trucks or otherwise. The crucial issue for the working class is that this be done safely. That requires strong union power in all the industries concerned, including union safety committees able to shut down operations at any point.
Ultimately, the safe and productive use of natural resources for the benefit of the entire human race can only be ensured once the bourgeois rulers are overthrown. As our comrades of the Spartacist League/U.S. wrote following the massive British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, in which eleven oil workers (and many cleanup employees) died and which caused irreparable environmental damage:
“Industrial murder and environmental devastation are endemic to the workings of the capitalist system. Only when the working class rips industry from the hands of the capitalists and establishes a planned socialist economy on a world scale will the enormous resources of the planet be put to use for all of humanity. When the workers rule, technology and productive resources will be expanded to overcome scarcity and provide a decent life for all. The fight for a socialist future requires forging revolutionary workers parties that will lead all the exploited and oppressed in proletarian revolution.”
—“Gulf Coast Disaster: Capitalist Profit Drive Kills,” WV No. 961, 2 July 2010