Saturday, July 27, 2013

Culture of danger

I'm a little staggered by the fallout over the accident at Lac-M├ęgantic.

In theory, most of what happened is open and shut. An accident happened - a tragic disastrous accident - when an unattended train rolled away and derailed in the middle of a city with its cargo catching fire.The CEO of the railroad has claimed the engineer that was responsible for the entire train failed to set the correct number of handbrakes before leaving the train, thus, accident.

Of course, "thus accident" is never that simple. The train was:

  • Unattended
  • On the main line
  • Using substandard equipment to carry the cargo
  • Had a locomotive that was in such a bad state of disrepair that it was noticeably on fire within 15 minutes of the engineer leaving it - and reportedly the engineer said it was a problem to his taxi driver when he left it.

Were any of the above not true, the accident wouldn't have happened. Accidents are rarely caused by one thing going wrong.

  • If the train were attended, steps would have been taken as soon as the train started to roll to stop it
  • If the train hadn't been on the main line, the train wouldn't have gone anywhere.
  • If the DOT-111 tankers had been replaced by more modern equipment, the derail would be unlikely to have been as lethal, as it would have been highly unlikely a fire would have broken out.
  • Had the locomotive not caught fire, it wouldn't have been turned off, which means the airbrakes would have held, and the train would have stayed in place.

The CEO's attempts to point the finger at his engineer are far from reasonable either. The engineer in question knew his train was going to be taken over by a different "crew" later on that night. So it's reasonable to ask the question: if the CEO is right, and the engineer was that irresponsible, why did he not expect to be caught by his relief? Put yourself in the shoes of the relief "crew" (is it really a crew if you're one person?), you get to the train, the lead locomotive is a mess, and you go to disengage the handbrakes only to find there aren't any engaged. Are you seriously not angered enough by such a disregard for basic safety that you can't be bothered to report this?

Is this what bothers me? Kinda. But what's equally troubling is the rail establishment's reaction. Because apparently everyone knows "Ed" - Ed Burkhardt, the CEO of Rail World, the company that owns MM&A, the railroad that executed this tragedy. And if there's one thing they all know, it's this: you guys should Leave Ed Allllllllllloooooooonnnnnee.

Burkhardt is an interesting character. He's a long time railroad professional, and apparently has rescued more than one railroad from a likely grave. MM&A is just one of his latest projects. While I don't know him personally, I have to say based upon everything from Rail World's website (which might as well be called Ed Burkhardt .com) to his decision to wait a week before going to Canada because he wanted to work out all the insurance details himself, personally, that he comes across as a bit of a micromanager. Perhaps he isn't. But certainly as the head of a railroad, as a lead proponent of some of the policies - like the one man crew issue - that are now being questioned, it's hard to suggest that, well, he's not at all responsible for what happened. And it's definitely hard to see why people shouldn't actually criticize Burkhardt's response given it's difficult to separate him and the culture that caused the accident. BP's Tony Haywood could be reasonably held blameless, he wasn't in charge of BP long enough or close enough to the people involved, to be considered responsible for the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, and yet poor Tony was slammed for his response to that disaster. Meanwhile, this arguably bigger tragedy has people actually claiming the CEO is being treated terribly unfairly.

So why's he being defended? And so forcefully? A clue lies in the general response to one of the counts against MM&A. The media has been trumpeting the fact that the MM&A has a below average safety record, and it does, it has an accident rate more than twice the average.

Burkhardt's defenders point out that's misleading. They say that short lines do, typically, have much higher accident rates than average. MM&A isn't actually a short line, it's actually larger than many major Class 2s such as the FEC, but I suspect the point they're making isn't about size but liquidity and financial health. The MM&A is having trouble making profits, they say, and so its safety record needs to be compared to other railroads on shoestring budgets rather than, uh, the FEC.

Another clue, perhaps, is in why people like Burkhardt are popular to begin with. Trains Magazine's Fred Frailey posts a highly positive profile of another CEO, the Illinois Central's Harry Bruce, in the latest issue. Why Bruce? Because Bruce reportedly rescued the IC using some highly exciting (not really) corporate restructuring leaving most of railroad functional afterwards. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I'm just pointing out that's what's important.

I'm going to say it: what Burkhardt's defenders appear to be coming from is that in this industry it may be necessary to cut corners, but as long as you're doing so to keep a railroad alive, you have your heart in the right place.

I don't think that's right. And I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s where the worst people since Hitler were Myra Hindley (a serial killer), Ian Bradey (another serial killer and Hindley's co-conspirator), and Doctor Richard Beeching (someone who successfully proposed cutting 1/3 of Britain's railway network.)

And what concerns me more than anything else is that this might be the attitude of the rail establishment within the US. It's certainly easier to explain the anger at Burkhardt's critics if you believe that MM&A's policies and culture is typical of mainstream railroading.

(It might even be easier to explain things like the FRA's ludicrous over-the-top passenger rolling stock requirements if you assume the FRA, after decades of experience, just doesn't trust the railroads to give safety a passing thought.)