Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“Lac-Mégantic: Where does the buck stop?”

with 2 comments

Bruce Campbell executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives summarizes his own study into the crash of an unattended oil train in Quebec in an op ed piece for the Toronto Star. It is a disturbing read: I went on to read the entire study which you can also download as a pdf.

The buck, of course, stops at the top of the heap. US President Harry S Truman famously had a sign on his desk “The Buck Stops Here”. Our Prime Minister of course does everything he can to avoid acknowledging any responsibility even for the disasters of his own creation. I am not alone in fingering him.  Campbell quotes an opinion piece published in Le Devoir “Explosion A Lac-Mégantic: j’accuse!”  on July 25, 2013. The author Rodolfe DeKoninck is Canada Research Chair in Asian Studies at Université de Montréal. Oddly the way the pdf if formatted enables me to cut and paste the reference but not the quote itself

“In other words, I accuse you, Mr Prime Minister, you and your government, of being at the top of the pyramid of responsibility for the tragedy that occurred at Lac-Mégantic”.

I have regularly in this blog criticized deregulation in the transportation industry here and elsewhere. The report also contains another quote that I must transcribe

Corporations have a singular obligation “to promote their own  and their owners’ interests. They have no capacity, and their executives no authority, to act out of a genuine sense of responsibility to society, to avoid causing harm to people and the environment, or to work to advance the public good in ways that are unrelated to their own self interest.”

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation, Penguin, 2007, 150.

Campbell observes

Conservative ideology holds that deregulation lowers costs to business, which increases profits, which lead to more investment, which in turn leads to faster economic growth and increased job creation. There are no credible studies that demonstrate empirically the existence of such a causal chain. It is simply declared as fact by free market doctrine.

On the contrary there is much evidence that deregulation, including in the railway industry, has resulted in job loss …Profits have increased, but business investment …has stagnated.

I have a couple of cautions to add. Economic growth is no longer desirable – at least in the advanced western economies – since it is tied to further depredations on the environment which threaten our existence. Even if there were such a causal chain, I would dispute that the supposed benefits of economic growth and the type of job creation would be worth the damage that inevitably results to us and our planet. There are other models we could look at – Norway, Iceland and Cuba come top of mind – but there are others who manage to run our sort of economy with much more regulation, and see greater safety, security and better public health as a result. It is not actually necessary for the exceedingly wealthy to get any better off, but it is very important for us to reset some of the conditions that we used to enjoy up until quite recently. We did not have to revert to a Dickensian society to learn that unbridled capitalism was going to cause disasters.

The conclusion of the report is more a set of questions than specific remedies. But given events playing out now on Parliament Hill, it is my hope that the hold that conservatism has had on popular imagination will be broken. The election of the Conservatives only came due to the distaste that the electorate felt at the corruption of the Liberals. The Conservatives have now shown that they are no better, and just as concerned at feathering their own nest, as well as concentrating solely on the well being of their corporate sponsors.

The sequence of events that led to the derailment of the train and the destruction of Lac-Mégantic, with the loss of so many lives, can be seen to be the result of the federal government giving up a very significant level of responsibility. “Cutting red tape” sounds like a Good Idea, until you begin to realize that there was a purpose to regulation. And that regulation resulting from careful consideration and experience is far better than those slapped quickly into place as part of a public relations campaign to paper over the cracks. The regulation also has to be enforced effectively, and we cannot expect corporations – in any industry – to regulate their own activities in ways that put the pubic interest first.

At the very least, we should expect that Transport Canada will require the introduction of Positive Train Control as is already happening in the US. (see footnote 20 in the report)

UPDATE December 4

The recent passenger train crash on New York has disabused me of the notion that PTC is actually being implemented – it is legislated to happen but the railways are dragging their feet (of course). And to understand more about the fuel the train was carrying I suggest you read the Globe and Mail series – even though it is paywalled.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Stephen, I have heard all about your efforts as a Caped Crusader, from way over here in the UK. Your efforts to stand up for decency and transparency in transportation and ecology are applauded by us, the people. Keep up the good work! And Rosemary is very proud of you (how else would I have heard of you?). You are like George Washington with his little ax – you tell it like it is. Well done, more power to your elbow. I visited BC and Vancouver myself a few years ago, a beautiful area. Gawd bless you, guvnor.

    Anna Ray MKMMA

    October 25, 2013 at 4:01 pm

  2. In 300 years, historians and archeologists will wonder why we had the arrogance to consider ourselves such an advanced society when such a high degree of dependency on finite and highly-damaging fossil fuels prevailed. That is, if any humans are still alive then.

    To think that the equivalent amount of energy to that carried by all our railways and pipelines can be transported across the continent and undersea at the speed of light on high-tension electrical transmission cables sourced from renewables. That image makes the transport and burning of oil seem so Byzantine, and the argument that the exploitation of fossil fuels is essential to underpin our economy as a classic example of a non seqitur from a high school English class.

    MB

    October 28, 2013 at 4:17 pm


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