After nine days of deliberation, a Canadian jury acquitted three railroad workers of charges stemming from a rail derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, a town in eastern Quebec, Canada.
The jury reached its verdict after a four-month trial.
The explosion took place in July 2013 after a runaway locomotive with no one on board jumped the tracks in downtown Lac-Mégantic.
The locomotive, owned and operated by the Montreal Maine Atlantic (MMA) railroad, was pulling tanker cars containing crude oil. They burst into flames on impact and exploded leveling most of the buildings in downtown Lac-Mégantic
Tom Harding, the train’s engineer, Richard Labrie, a rail traffic controller, and Jean Demaitre, the operations manager, all employees of MMA, were charged with criminal negligence.
Harding, Labrie, and Demaitre expressed great relief at the verdict.
Survivors of the victims also were glad that the that the workers were acquitted because they thought that the wrong people were charged with the crime.
“I felt relief because these (men) are not the right people who should be (on trial),” said Jean Clusiault to reporters after the verdict was announced. Clusiault’s daughter died in the explosion.
Clusiault added that he thought that MMA executives should have been on trial instead of the three workers.
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin told the same reporters, “The company had a big role to play in this.”
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigated the causes of the derailment and explosion and also concluded that MMA played a big role in causing the accident.
The report, published in 2014, found that there was a chain of 18 contributing factors that caused the derailment and explosion.
Among those contributing factors were the company’s failure to maintain the locomotive involved in the accident in good working order, an insufficient braking system on the 72-car train, the lack of employee training on the proper way to set the brakes, and an overall lack of safety culture at the company.
Wendy Tardos, chair of TSB when the report was published, described MMA as a shortline railway that made its profit by cutting corners on maintenance and employee training.
The report also looked at the company’s practice of using one-person crews on its trains like the one that leveled Lac-Mégantic.
The report was inconclusive about the role that the one-person crew played in causing the accident, but shortly after the 2013 accident Transport Canada, the federal government’s agency responsible for transportation policies, banned rail lines from using one-person crews.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which had been closely following the trial, criticized MMA for its “dangerous practice” of using one-person crews especially when it was transporting explosive cargo like crude oil.
Shortly after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the US Federal Railway Administration (FRA) also began questioning whether it was safe for railways to use one-person crews.
After extensive study, FRA proposed new regulations requiring two-person crews on trains carrying crude oil and establishing minimum crew-size requirements for most mainline freight and passenger rail operations.
The rail industry in the US, which has been pushing to expand its use of one-person crews in order to eliminate jobs and lower labor costs, lobbied hard against the FRA’s new safety regulations.
After a long comment period and hours of testimony, FRA was prepared to publish its new minimum crew size regulations.
But before that could happen, President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget intervened, and the FRA pulled the regulation.
In Canada, the two-person crew rule remains in effect as the Canadian government works to ensure that another tragedy like the one in Lac-Mégantic does not occur.
The jury acquittal of the three workers may not be the last word on the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
MMA itself is facing criminal charges from the case, but the company is now defunct.
So far, the justice system has tried to pin the blame for the explosion on the three innocent workers and a company that no longer exists.
Noticeably absent from this list of those being held accountable are the MMA executives who as the former head of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said, made their profits by cutting corners on safety.