CP Rail put on trial over 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster, deaths

By John Steele
October 18, 2021

MONTREAL — Driven by the thirst for profits, Canadian Pacific Railway bosses bear major responsibility for the July 2013 Lac-Megantic oil-train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people. This is the charge at the heart of a class-action lawsuit whose trial began Sept. 21 in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

The suit is on behalf of 5,000 people and businesses affected by the disaster that burned out most of the small town’s downtown area. Other plaintiffs include the Quebec provincial government and several insurance companies.

“While we are waiting for an independent public inquiry into the tragedy of Lac-Megantic, the current trial of CP will surely teach us more about the causes and the real persons responsible for this modern capitalist crime,” Robert Bellefleur, spokesperson for the Citizens and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Megantic, told the Militant.

The coalition, formed by Lac-Megantic residents following the disaster, has organized demonstrations and circulated petitions demanding the Canadian federal government carry out its promise to build a rail bypass of the town. It calls on Ottawa to repair decrepit and dangerous tracks that still crisscross the community and is fighting to prevent CP Rail restarting oil-tanker traffic on a rebuilt line through the town center.

CP bosses have never accepted responsibility for the death and destruction in Lac-Megantic. They say before the train reached the town they had handed it over to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, now a defunct company.

The rail executives choreographed a media campaign to scapegoat locomotive engineer Tom Harding, the one-person “crew” on the runaway train, accusing him of not setting enough hand brakes before he left the train for a mandated sleep break.

Harding, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1976, was framed-up by the government and Quebec cops on criminal negligence charges, along with Richard Labrie, another member of the USW local, and a low-level former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic manager. In a victory for working people, all three were acquitted by a jury in January 2018 after a three-and-a-half month trial.

Testimony convinced the jury that Harding had left the train for the night with the lead locomotive running to keep the air brakes engaged and had set a number of hand brakes, in accordance with company procedures and as he had done on numerous other occasions. During the night, firefighters unknowingly turned off the air brakes when they shut down the engine to extinguish a fire that had broken out due to bosses’ lack of train maintenance.

With the air pressure turned off, the brakes bled out and the train rolled down a seven-mile grade into the center of Lac-Megantic, derailed and exploded. Both the Teamsters, which organizes most freight rail workers in Canada, and the United Steelworkers, which organized workers at Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, issued statements welcoming the defeat of the frame-up.

In the current trial against Canadian Pacific, Harding was the first witness called to testify for the plaintiffs. He described what he had done to secure the train before he left it running on the night of July 5-6, 2013.

“I don’t blame him,” Jean Clusiault, one of the plaintiffs in the suit whose daughter died in the conflagration, told the media after attending the first days of the trial. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic “was a poor company — that’s the reason why.”

CP bosses’ profit drive

The suit against Canadian Pacific charges that the rail bosses handed the oil train over to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic to cut costs and maximize profits. “The evidence will show that the price and the volume were the only CP considerations in its relations with the MMA,” not safety, suit lawyer Joel Rochon told the media.

The oil trains that ran through Lac-Megantic were “moving bombs,” Richard Labrie testified on the third day of the trial, because of the dangerous state of the company’s equipment and tracks. Labrie was the traffic controller on duty the night of the derailment.

“When there were minor breakdowns, it always took an eternity to get repairs done,” testified Labrie, pointing to the defective locomotive engine being used as the lead engine that evening. Bosses had ignored requests by MMA workers, including Harding, to have it taken out of service and sent to the shop.

“The information that has already come out in the court underlines the need for workers to use our unions to fight for workers control of production and safety on the job,” Philippe Tessier, Communist League candidate for mayor of the Montreal borough of Ville Saint-Laurent and a Canadian National rail conductor, told the Militant.

“You can’t rely on capitalist corporations whose goal is to maximize profits, or governments that act in their interests, to protect the safety of working people.

“Since the Lac-Megantic disaster the profit drive of the railway bosses has intensified. Unsafe conditions facing rail workers and working people living near the tracks have become worse,” said Tessier, a Teamsters union member.

“Our 10-day ‘strike for safety’ in 2019 successfully pushed back some of the unsafe conditions CN bosses wanted us to accept,” he said. “But they have since announced a new ‘productivity’ drive that includes layoffs and the use of ‘longer and faster trains’ — a recipe for another, inevitable Lac-Megantic somewhere, sometime. The only way that can be prevented is by using union power.

“No worker has to die on the job,” Tessier added. “Trains should be limited to 50 cars in length, with a four-person crew, two on either end of the train.”