Train Operator Blames Disaster on Firefighters
Says they inadvertently shut off power to brakes during earlier fire
By John Johnson, Newser Staff
Posted Jul 9, 2013 12:25 PM CDT
Charred tanker cars are piled up in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Tuesday.   (AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS,Jacques Boissinot)

(Newser) – The company that owns the runaway train that decimated the heart of a small Quebec town thinks firefighters working on it hours before the crash are to blame, reports CNN. The firefighters put out a fire aboard the train when it was parked in the town of Nantes. While doing so, "they shut down the engine that was maintaining the brakes that were holding the train," Edward Burkhardt of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway tells CTV. "They didn’t do that on purpose, this was inadvertent." At some point after the fire was out, the train began rolling on its own toward nearby Lac-Megantic, picking up speed as it went because it's a downhill journey. By the time it reached the town, a distance of 8 miles, the driver-less train was out of control.

The Nantes fire chief, meanwhile, tells Reuters that its crew informed an MMA dispatcher of exactly what it did while extinguishing the blaze. "We were there for the train fire," he says. "As for the inspection of the train after the fact, that was up to them." As of today, 13 people were confirmed dead and up to 50 were missing, reports the Montreal Gazette. Canadian transportation officials say it will be awhile before the investigation is complete.

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Showing 3 of 51 comments
Jul 13, 2013 12:49 PM CDT
If the rail company had manned the train, this would never have happened. Failure to use common sense destroyed the heart of Lac Megantic, and killed scores of people. Technology is no substitute for a human being. Who in their right mind walks away and leaves a trainload of volatile material unattended?
Jul 10, 2013 6:57 AM CDT
I am not clear on all of the facts of the first fire. However, the firemen are in charge of the scene. If they evacuated the train for the safety of the employees and were told to shut the train down. The conductor and engineer did what they were ordered to do by the FD. Responsibility of the train falls on the FD at that point. Obviously the train company has a vested interest in saving money and if the first fire was being fought for a long period of time then I can see the company pulling their employees from that train and sending others back out when the scene is released. It is also obvious that the railroad company had not gotten the ok to get back in the train and resume control since it was not occupied when it started to roll away. I can see the air lines bleeding off and the brakes releasing after they were set. Sounds to me as if the FD didn't get with the conductor of the train to see about setting the hand brakes on a few of the cars. A train is a machine after all and like all machines, parts fail. Is it possible the brake system failed. If the brake system failed, could the fire have damaged it? I know that if an engine sits for a period of time in a rail yard, the newer ones anyway will start and stop running as needed. I would, if on the FD, have asked the conductor after shutting the engine down if there should be anything else done to secure the train in place since very few of us would know anything about the operation of a train.
Jul 10, 2013 1:53 AM CDT
Something here seems really wrong from a maintenance standpoint. As a facility engineer I understand compressed air systems, and here is what I'm referring to: There is a main air line running from the engine to each car, pressurized by an air compressor in the engine. This line charges air tanks located in each car. There is a check valve on these tanks, so if the engine air pressure fails, the tanks remain charged. Then, there is another line running from the engine to control valves on each car. If the pressure in this second line is high, its air can also be used to fill the air tanks. More importantly, if it is high the car control valves sense this and release/exhaust pressure in the brake cylinders of all the brakes, which are otherwise held in place by the air pressure from the individual tanks in each car. If the pressure in that second line drops, the control valves sense this, and route high pressure from the individual car tanks to the brake cylinders, applying the brakes. It is supposed to be fail-safe in that way. Make sense so far? Now, if the engine is shut down, nothing should have changed, because the main air tank on the engine is full, and all the car air tanks are full. The system should have been set so the second control air line had low pressure, making the control valves open and allow high pressure air to flow from the car tanks to the car brake cylinders, applying the brakes indefinitely. For the brakes to disengage at some point after the engine was shut down, however, means that the air tank on the engine had to bleed pressure from some seal or fitting, and also the car tanks, control valves, and/or brake cylinders had to also bleed pressure from some seal or fitting. There are no other ways for air to escape and the brakes to release. Lastly, this had to be known, since there would have been no other reason to leave an engine running other than to compensate for leaks in the system.