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When the essential is derailed

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Lac-Mégantic's downtown core lies in ruins.

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Lac-Mégantic's downtown core lies in ruins.

On Dec. 13, 1982, a bizarre chain of events led to a six-locomotive runaway at the CP Rail yards in central Winnipeg. The runaway collided with an "empty" propane tanker, which exploded spectacularly -- "Like an atomic bomb," according to one witness who apparently knew of such comparisons. It was quickly determined one railworker was injured and there might have been some risk to others -- a "bingo parlour" was evacuated as a precaution. Then, in the absence of a time-consuming investigation, the hand wringing and speculation began.

"Sabotage" was alleged, the risks of railways and yards in urban centres were passionately rehearsed and everywhere there were demands that something must be done. Eventually (30 months later), a finding of human error was established and a man was fired. After 12 days of hearings, a Canadian Transport Commission ruled calls for extraordinary and expensive modifications to the yards were unnecessary and the commission accepted the railways's promise that it not happen again, which it has not.

That explosion in Winnipeg 30 years ago is a trivial matter compared to the truly catastrophic runaway-train disaster that engulfed the small Quebec town of Lac-M©gantic early Saturday morning when an unattended freight train rolled 16 kilometres down an incline, achieving such speeds it derailed on a curve causing crude oil tankers to explode, killing at least 13 people and leveling 30 buildings. So sensational was the disaster it was news around the world, even causing Pope Francis to respond.

From the beginning, the essential question was why? How could such a thing happen?

From the beginning that was not an easy question to answer in its particulars. And although it was fairly certain no one was aboard the train that had caught fire the night before, as happened in Winnipeg 30 years earlier, attention quickly turned to handwringing and speculation, amplified to a state of seeming credibility by the 24-7 news cycle and speed and reach of the Internet and social media. So instead of concentrating on what was difficult, attention turned to what was easy. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair most rashly charged it was the Conservative government "cutting transport safety." Oilsands critics pointed at the increase in crude oil tanker traffic as an alternative to stalled pipeline construction. It turned out the crude came from North Dakota and the charge made the case for more pipelines

Were the cars sufficiently reinforced? Did it matter? They were travelling so fast no level of reinforcement would have prevented ruptures. Likewise, it was conjectured a curve in the track was too tight. But it had not been too tight until a runaway train travelling at unknown but certainly unrestrained speeds derailed.

It was speculated railways and trains moving dangerous goods should not be located in urban areas, which effectively puts the cart before horse -- railways attract urban development, not vice-versa. (In fact, in Winnipeg, one argument advanced for rapid transit is that it will attract development.)

Meanwhile, the essential issue -- How did it happen? -- has received much less attention, likely because there are liability issues involved in pointing fingers at the actual players involved -- the workers who were not on the train as a result of policies of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, or the firefighters who attended the scene hours before the freight train started its ill-fated descent toward Lac-M©gantic and its 6,000 residents.

None of which is to say the secondary questions are not worth asking -- in the fullness of time. But it is to say that special interests and politicians who use such events to advance their separate and secondary agendas do Canadians generally, and the residents of Lac-M©gantic in particular, a disservice by sensationalizing the trivial in the face of catastrophe and tragic loss.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2013 A8

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