Two Weeks – Two Fronts in Fight for Rail Safety
June 20 – Drop the Charges July 6th – No More Lac-Mégantics
Three years ago, on July 6, 2013, a small town in Quebec became a symbol of the need for greater focus on rail safety throughout North America. A runaway Bakken oil train exploded and burned in the downtown. 47 people were killed immediately and another 3 have taken their own lives in the last three years in the devastating aftermath which has left a legacy of destruction and environmental damage which will never be truly overcome.
The Lac-Mégantic tragedy will be back in the news twice in a matter of weeks. The Citizens Coalition in Lac-Mégantic has called for July 6th this year to be a day of remembrance for the victims of the crash and a day to recommit to greater rail safety. Railroad workers, environmental activists and other community groups concerned about railroad safety will express their solidarity by answering that call and take time out on July 6th to say No More Lac-Mégantics. Railroad Workers United will join with others on July 6th in Chicago for a special forum on rail safety centered on the issues raised in Lac-Mégantic. Actions are underway in other cities as well.
This commemoration will come just two weeks after the latest events in a legal battle that should have ended long ago – the drive to scapegoat railroad workers and let unsafe railroad policies off the hook.
Everybody wanted to know what was responsible for the tragedy. People called for a complete and thorough investigation to determine the facts and the guilty parties. But the Canadian government jumped the gun and theatrically charged the engineer, Tom Harding, and his dispatcher, Richard Labrie with 47 counts of criminal negligence resulting in death.
Ultimately investigation by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board and courageous investigative reporters turned up serious evidence that laid the responsibility for the crash at the feet of decisions and policies of the railroad company, the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA). These unsafe corporate policies and decisions had been ignored or even endorsed by the Canadian regulators responsible for overseeing rail safety.
The evidence is now very clear. The actions of Engineer Tom Harding and dispatcher Richard Labrie DID NOT cause the Lac-Mégantic wreck. If the MMA hadn’t imposed unsafe procedures on its train crews, with Transport Canada regulators looking the other way, there would not have been a runaway train and explosion in Lac-Mégantic.
The MMA was not the only party taking shortcuts. On June 20th this year, Tom Harding’s lawyer is going to court to address the Canadian government’s rush to judgement. Crown Prosecutors used loopholes to avoid holding a Preliminary Hearing, which would have given the defendants an opportunity to challenge the supposed evidence and preview the theory of the prosecution. A Preliminary Hearing would have been normal in most proceedings of this kind. Harding’s lawyer is now forced to present a motion for “Disclosure”, as well as a motion to “Stay the Proceedings”, based in part on the denial of Harding’s right to a Preliminary Hearing. Even if the Court grants Harding’s defense motions (the Crown has filed motions to “quash” them) it will not be the end of the need for us to use every means to get out the word about this wrongful prosecution going forward.
If railroading Tom Harding and Richard Labrie to prison wasn’t bad enough, the Canadian government has blocked the efforts of the Citizens Coalition of Lac-Mégantic to move the railroad tracks from the center of town and to make real rail safety a top priority going forward. The government wants to narrow the issue to oil trains and declare the danger over. But rail safety is not just about unsafe cargo. The people who live by the tracks and those who run the trains must be party to determining whether safe conditions are maintained.
The Canadian government must stop the prosecution of railroad workers for a tragedy they did not cause, and they and the U.S. government must speed up addressing unsafe railroad practices and conditions in Lac-Mégantic and everywhere. Every Railroad worker and everyone who cares about railroad safety has a stake in the outcome of this. We all need to be watching what happens in the courtroom on June 20th and be prepared to stand up for rail safety on July 6th.