Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

In the early morning of 6 July 2013, a runaway train hauling 72 tankers filled with crude oil derailed as it approached the centre of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The tanker cars exploded and the oil caught fire, killing 47 people and destroying many buildings and other infrastructure in the town centre. The fourth deadliest railway disaster in Canadian history, the derailment led to changes in rail transport safety rules as well as legal action against the company and employees involved in the incident. Years after the derailment, re-building was still ongoing and many of the town’s residents continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress.



Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

First responders on site of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment. Photo taken 6 July 2013. (Courtesy Transportation Safety Board of Canada/flickr CC)

The Disaster

On 5 July 2013, train engineer Thomas Harding, an employee of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company, parked his train for the night in the town of Nantes, Quebec. Nantes is about 10 km northwest of the 6,000-person town of Lac-Mégantic, located in the province’s Estrie region (see Eastern Townships).

The train was composed of locomotives and 72 tanker cars carrying about 8 million litres of crude oil from oil fields in North Dakota, US. The oil was bound for refineries in New Brunswick. When Thomas Harding parked the train, he kept its locomotive running, which maintained the air-braking system. Harding did not, however, apply enough handbrakes to the train and left it improperly secured on a downward slope in Nantes.

After Harding left for the night, a fire broke out on the train’s main locomotive, which is the engine. Firefighters responded to the call and put out the fire. They also turned off the train’s engine, part of the train’s braking system. When the firefighters left for the night, the train’s air brakes were no longer working because the engine was shut off. Just before 1 a.m. on 6 July 2013, the train began slowly moving on its own toward the town of Lac-Mégantic because Harding hadn’t applied enough handbrakes.

Did you know?
The engine fire was determined to have been caused by an accumulation of oil in the engine’s turbocharger following an inadequate repair job to a piston eight months earlier.

Reaching a top speed of more than 100 km/h, the train derailed as it approached the centre of Lac-Mégantic, around 1:15 a.m. Almost 6 million litres of crude oil leaked from the 63 tankers that derailed and exploded, killing 47 people, forcing the evacuation of about 2,000 people from their homes, and destroying a large part of the town’s centre. Roughly 100,000 litres of oil leaked into the nearby Chaudière River, raising serious concerns as to the long-term environmental impact on the waterway, wildlife and communities downstream. (See also Lac-Mégantic Tragedy: How Could This Have Happened?)

Legal Consequences

Civil Proceedings

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company (MMA), which operated in both the United States and Canada, didn’t have enough assets or insurance to pay damages to victims and other creditors of the disaster. Shortly after the derailment, the company was forced into bankruptcy in both countries. Victims of the derailment launched a class-action lawsuit against many of the companies connected to the disaster, from the owners of the crude oil that was loaded into the tankers in the US, down to the companies that owned the tracks on which the train travelled, including MMA.

The MMA bankruptcy process was tied to the class-action lawsuit. All the companies accused in the class action were allowed to pay money into a settlement fund for victims in exchange for the right to be permanently removed from the class action. About 25 companies took part in the offer and gave a total of $450 million for victims and creditors. Only Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) refused to pay into the settlement fund, claiming it bore no responsibility for the disaster. While CP was dropped from the class-action lawsuit, those proceedings were merged with another lawsuit against CP from the Quebec government. Canadian Pacific Railway is the only company left accused, and those proceedings are still before the courts. (See also Civil Procedure.)

Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

Aerial view of charred freight train in Lac-Mégantic. Photo taken 7 July 2013. (Courtesy Transportation Safety Board of Canada/flickr CC)

Criminal Trial

In 2014, train engineer Thomas Harding and two other former MMA employees, traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaître, were arrested. They were each charged with one count of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people.

Their trial began in October 2017 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, about 100 km west of Lac-Mégantic. The Crown prosecutors argued that all three men, in their own way, contributed to the death of 47 people.

Harding was accused of not applying enough handbrakes on the train before he left for the night, in addition to parking the convoy dangerously on a slope, 10 km away from the town of Lac-Mégantic. Labrie was alleged to have failed to properly inquire about the security of the train after it caught fire. Demaître was accused of failing to take the proper measures to ensure the train was secure.

Lawyers for the three defendants argued that MMA did not properly train its employees and lacked a culture of safety. Harding admitted to improperly securing the train, but his lawyer said that this was standard practice at the company, and that if there had been no fire and the firefighters had not turned off the train’s engine, the convoy would not have moved on its own. The defendants’ lawyers argued the disaster occurred because of a perfect storm of unforeseeable events. After a trial that lasted longer than one month, and following nine days of deliberations, the jury came back and declared all three men not guilty. (See also Criminal Procedure.)

Changes to Rail Transportation

The final report into the disaster by the federal Transportation Safety Board (TSB) noted many problems with the way the MMA rail company maintained its infrastructure and trained its employees. The TSB, however, also said regulatory agencies didn’t do enough to force the company to comply with federal rules (see also Transportation Regulation).

The governmental transport agencies of Canada and the United States responded to the disaster by announcing a series of security measures that would apply on both sides of the border. Among the changes, the governments set safety standards for new rail cars, and implemented timelines for older tank cars to be retrofitted to better resist exploding in the case of a derailment. The authorities also imposed speed limits in rural and urban areas and required trains to have an electronic braking system.

Impact of the Rail Disaster on Residents

Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

Lac-Mégantic the day after the explosion. (Courtesy Michel G./flickr CC)

The effects of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster left emotional scars among the people who lived there. Many in the community lost family, friends, neighbours and co-workers.

A study by the Estrie health authority published in January 2017 found that roughly half of residents continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress more than three years after the tragedy. People who lived closest to the blast had the highest rates of post-traumatic stress. Residents said a big step toward healing the psychological scars of the tragedy would be the construction of a rail by-pass. Since 2013, many residents had been calling for the train tracks to be re-routed away from the downtown core. The federal and provincial governments reached a deal to finance the project, which was announced in May 2018, with construction scheduled to begin in 2019.

Lac-Mégantic’s reconstruction of its buildings and other infrastructure is ongoing.

In 2019, Lac-Mégantic residents criticized media company Netflix for using footage of the rail disaster for entertainment in two of its productions, the horror film Bird Box and the sci-fi TV series Travelers. The production company behind Travelers apologized and said it would try to remove the footage. Netflix, however, said that it would not replace the images in Bird Box.


Further Reading

  • Bruce Campbell, The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied (2018).

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