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The Runaway Train That Destroyed Lac-Mégantic

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A massive fire blazes out of control following a derailment in Lac-Mégantic.

A massive fire blazes out of control following a derailment in Lac-Mégantic.

A Derailment Catastrophe

It was Friday night in the small south-eastern Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic (population 6,000). As was their habit, some of the residents were at the Musi-Café, a bar in the centre of the community that was close to the railroad tracks. Slipshod corporate management was about to play a key role in wrecking their evening's merriment.

The Train MMA 2

Five big diesel-electric locomotives were at the head of freight train MMA 2. It consisted of 72 non-pressurized tank cars filled with crude oil. The train was travelling from North Dakota to an oil refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. It was 4,700 feet long and weighed more than 10,000 tons.

The train was running on tracks belonging to the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A), a company that was American owned with headquarters in Maine.

The train left Montreal in the early hours of July 5, 2013, and, after a crew change, reached Nantes, almost seven miles west of Lac-Mégantic at 11 p.m. As per instructions, the engineer, the lone crew member, Tom Harding, parked the train at Nantes at the end of his shift. He set some brakes and left the train standing on the main line facing a slight downward incline.

Normal procedure elsewhere would be to park the train in a siding where a derailing mechanism would protect it from accidentally leaving. However, MM&A used the Nantes siding as a store for empty box cars, so Tom Harding's train had to come to rest on the live line. This was unusual but not against regulations.

Harding left the lead engine running so as to supply pressure to the air brakes. Then, he applied friction brakes to seven of the tanker cars; this was not a high number considering the length of the train, something that was an issue with MM&A. Transport Canada, which regulates rail safety, had repeatedly cited the company for brake rule violations.

Harding was concerned that his lead engine was spitting black smoke, a situation he reported to control. He was told the issue would be dealt with in the morning. Harding left to spend the night in a hotel in Lac-Mégantic.

5023 was one of the locomotives involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster. It's seen here operating for the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1986.

5023 was one of the locomotives involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster. It's seen here operating for the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1986.

Fire in the Night

A road ran beside the track where train MMA 2 was parked, and passersby noticed smoke and sparks coming from the lead locomotive. At 11.50 p.m. a 911 call brought the local fire department to the scene to find flames coming from the locomotive.

Firefighters shut down the engine and doused the fire. MMA was notified and a couple of inexperienced maintenance men sent to the scene. They declared the train to be safe. It wasn't.

With the lead engine shut down, the air-brake reservoirs gradually lost pressure until the train started to slowly roll down the hill toward Lac-Mégantic. The movement started just before 1 a.m. Within minutes, the dead engines and tanker cars were travelling at speed. By the time, the train reached the town it was doing 65 mph, six times the speed limit for a curve in the line.

Inevitably, the train derailed at 1:14 a.m. Gilles Fluet, 65, had just left the bar, Musi-Café, to head home and he saw the disaster unfold. He told the Associated Press, “It was moving at a hellish speed ... no lights, no signals, nothing at all. There was no warning. It was a black blob that came out of nowhere.”

“I realized they were oil tankers, and they were going to blow up, so I yelled that to my friends, and I got out of there. If we had stayed where we were, we would have been roasted.”

They were lucky. As the tankers ruptured and caught fire, the devastation was massive. Almost everyone else in the Musi-Café that night died, which accounted for 30 of the 47 victims. Most of the people killed could only be identified by dental records or DNA. The body parts of five people were never found; it's assumed they simply vaporized in the inferno.

Forty buildings were flattened and 2,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Millions of gallons of oil flowed into the lake.

Aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic Disaster

An iconic moment occurred following the catastrophe when the CEO and controlling owner of MM&A, Edward Burkhardt, visited Lac-Mégantic. It was four days after the crash and word had already spread that Burkhardt-managed companies had poor safety records, more than double the U.S. national average.

The Toronto Star reported that when Burkhardt took over the railroad in 2003, he reduced the wages of employees by 40 percent and cut locomotive crews from two to one.

In media scrums, Burkhardt tried to dodge responsibility. First, he accused the firefighters of meddling with the train's controls in such a way as to create the runaway. Then, he blamed everything on the engineer, Tom Harding, who was largely following company rules.

Burkhardt's expressions of remorse appeared forced and insincere. He seemed to have a tin ear to the suffering of the people of Lac-Mégantic and quickly became public enemy number one in the town.

The official inquiry and other legal proceedings found the citizens of Lac-Mégantic were correct in making Burkhardt the culprit. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) identified 18 factors that contributed to the accident and most of them went to the cost-cutting that reigned at MM&A—poor locomotive and track maintenance, and lack of training given to employees. Transport Canada was also cited for lax oversight.

Wendy Tadros of the TSB commented that “Take any one of them out of the equation and this accident may not have happened.” She pointed at cost saving on training and engine maintenance as major factors.

The driver, Tom Harding, and two controllers faced a lengthy trial on charges of criminal negligence. However, many of the citizens of Lac-Mégantic expressed sympathy for the men, saying it was the company and its shoddy safety culture that should have been in court. A jury found them not guilty.

MM&A declared bankruptcy shortly after the disaster. What was left of the company's assets along with insurance industry funds led to the creation of a fund of $200 million to compensate the victims. More lawsuits are flying around nine years after the calamity.

The devastation of Lac-Mégantic.

The devastation of Lac-Mégantic.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2014, a rebuilt Musi-Café opened at a new location. Much of the construction money was raised through benefit concerts held by Quebec musicians who had played at the pub. The names of the patrons and staff who died are engraved on the bar's new speakers.
  • As of this writing, Ed Burkhardt is still the President and CEO of Rail World Inc., the parent company of the defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.
  • The worst train disaster in Canadian history happened in June 1864 (three years before Canada became a nation). A passenger train failed to obey a stop signal and plunged into the Richelieu River near the town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. The death toll was 99.
  • In November 1979, a freight train derailed in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. The train was carrying propane and many hazardous chemicals. The resulting fire caused 200,000 people to be forced out of their homes: The largest peacetime evacuation in North American history until Hurrican Katrina in 2005.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor