The railway at the centre of the devastation in Lac-Mégantic, Que., had boasted an improving safety record prior to this weekend's accident, data collected by Canadian and U.S. regulators show.
Accident reports filed by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. show the number of safety problems had fallen by about half compared with its early years in operation. MM&A has been in existence since 2003, when its assets were acquired by Rail World Inc., a railway investment company based in Chicago.
In its first three years, during a period when MM&A was struggling due to downturns in the demand for lumber shipments, the company had a string of accidents – 23 in 2003, 25 in 2004 and 33 in 2005, according to statistics compiled by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. But from 2006 to 2012, MM&A's accident rate improved, ranging from two to eight a year. Most of the cases involved equipment-related problems.
However, the company has seen a recent uptick in problems: In the first six months of 2013, prior to the Quebec derailment, it had eight accidents.
Seven of those were derailments off the mainline that runs from Montreal to Bangor, Me.; the other was on the mainline but involved only one or two cars, the safety board said.
The figures will be of no comfort to the residents of Lac-Mégantic, the small Quebec town ripped apart by a huge explosion early Saturday morning when an MM&A train carrying 72 cars of crude oil flew off the tracks. As the death toll rises – at least 15 were killed and dozens are still missing – anger at the railway is rising, too.
"I've gotten a whole bunch of hate mail," MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt told Bloomberg News. " 'Rot in hell.' 'Don't come up here, we're waiting for you.' "
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, he defended the company's approach to safety. "We've had, I think, a good safety record ... It's not perfect, but it's something we continually work on. We've never had a significant mainline derailment. We've had some minor derailments in the yards and things like that, but every railroad has that."
American statistics also show improving results for MM&A. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis notes that the railway had 46 accidents between from 2008 to 2012. Eleven of those were derailments. One had reported damage exceeding $100,000 (U.S.).
The previous five years were much worse, with 97 accidents between 2003 and 2007. This included 22 derailments and 4 accidents with damage more than $100,000.
Pan Am Railways, another railway in the region that competes with MM&A, had 82 accidents from 2008 to 2012 and 133 in the five years prior.
Late Monday afternoon, Transportation Minister Denis Lebel noted that MM&A's runaway train carrying crude oil which exploded in Lac-Mégantic early Saturday morning had been inspected a day before the accident.
"We do not yet know the cause of this tragic derailment. But we do know that a Transport Canada inspector inspected the locomotive involved in this incident just the day before it happened, on July 5, and found no deficiencies," Mr. Lebel said.
At a press conference Tuesday, Transport Canada officials were unsure whether the locomotive had been inspected and could only confirm that the 73 tank cars had been checked. Coming from North Dakota, originally as a train operated by Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., the cars were inspected in Montreal, where MM&A then picked up the train, according to Transport Canada.
Department officials pointed to the improved safety record throughout the rail industry. "Since 2007, train accidents in Canada have gone down by 23 per cent, and train derailments are down by 26 per cent," Transport Canada officials added.
The United Steelworkers, known in Quebec as Syndicat des Métallos, said the federal government needs to have greater oversight of the rail industry. The union represents 75 MM&A employees in Quebec.
Guy Farrell, assistant to the union's Quebec director, called on Ottawa to play a bigger role in the regulation of train safety. "The industry should not have been allowed to become as deregulated as it is now," Mr. Farrell said. "The government needs to stick its nose in."