US Federal Railroad Administration’s Emergency Action after Canadian Hazmat Train Derailment


At approximately 1:15 AM EST on July 6th, 2013, a unit freight train of the cross-border operating Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railroad (MM&A) loaded with crude oil from the Bakken Shale Formations in North Dakota in the western United States suffered an as-yet unexplained failure of its automatic and manual braking systems while left unattended and presumably safely secured on the MM&A mainline track near the town of Nantes in provincial Quebec, Canada. The crewless train then proceeded to “run away” in an uncontrolled and accelerating descent of the 1.2% downhill grade on which it had been left tied down, and at an estimated speed of over 60 mph entered a 10 MPH speed restricted curve in the city center of the town of Lac-Mégantic some seven miles from the train’s starting point for the runaway. Tragically, much of the train derailed and multiple cars loaded with crude oil ruptured, caught fire, and exploded in the heart of the community. The resultant massive fires and sustained release of hazardous chemicals combined to kill or leave missing almost fifty Canadian citizens of the town, injure countless others, and destroy or contaminate much of the city center and nearby lake in a disaster which remains under investigation and for which recovery efforts continue.

At press time, reasons for the accident remain under investigation; however, multiple points are being studied:

  • The policy regarding the wisdom of leaving a train carrying hazardous materials in an crewless state and away from an access controlled area
  • The procedure to secure a train on a grade
  • The correct use and application of both automatic and manual braking systems
  • Crew staffing requirements
  • Information and communication procedures
  • Emergency response

As noted, the investigation continues; however, based on initial study and with the grave consequences of the accident all too apparent in Lac-Mégantic , on August 2nd 2013 the United States Federal Railroad Administration issued an EMERGENCY ORDER directing US railroads to take certain actions intended to forestall the likelihood of such an incident occurring again. See this link:

The order is effective immediately and includes the following major provisions (Note: language below transcribed direct from order):

  • No train or vehicles transporting specified hazardous materials can be left unattended on a mainline track or side track outside a yard or terminal, unless specifically authorized.
    In order to receive authorization to leave a train unattended, railroads must develop and submit to FRA a process for securing unattended trains transporting hazardous materials, including locking the locomotive or otherwise disabling it, and reporting among employees to ensure the correct number of hand brakes are applied.
  • Employees who are responsible for securing trains and vehicles transporting such specified hazardous material must communicate with the train dispatchers the number of hand brakes applied, the tonnage and length of the train or vehicle, the grade and terrain features of the track, any relevant weather conditions, and the type of equipment being secured.
  • Train dispatchers must record the information provided. The dispatcher or other qualified railroad employee must verify that the securement meets the railroad’s requirements, and they must verify that the securement meets the railroad’s requirements.
  • Railroads must implement rules ensuring that any employee involved in securing a train participate in daily job briefings prior to the work being performed.
  • Railroads must develop procedures to ensure a qualified railroad employee inspects all equipment that an emergency responder has been on, under or between before the train can be left unattended.
  • Railroads must provide this EO to all affected employees.

While many of these provisions are seemingly common-sense, and indeed are already part of the operating procedure at many railroads in one form or another, several of the requirements may lead to increased costs and/or operating complications as railroads struggle to comply with the staffing and control requirements imposed. However, given the dire consequences of the accident so clearly on display amid the wreckage at Lac-Mégantic, railroaders and all transporters of hazardous materials can expect increased scrutiny regardless of their individual safety performance.