By now every one of you have heard "all" about the train explosion that ripped a small Canadian town apart over the weekend.
The media has described it in all kinds of ways, has reported on all sorts of theories as to what went wrong. They have failed to mention one thing - Capitalism.
I am actually going to reprint right here and now (as prelude to the actual post below) an article which I think catches the true spirit of what we can learn, of what we already know as to the Lac_Megantic bombing by global capital. The article from Ml FireDogLake is authored by someone going by the handle of Knut. It reads like this:
The appropriate subtitle is ‘Bhopal Coming to Your Hometown Soon.’
The train wreck (this time literal as well as figurative) at Lac-Mégantic hasn’t got much play here, but it is important enough to deserve attention, as it perfectly illustrates the principle of regulatory capture, like the non-incendiary financial meltdown in 2008. Here’s the story.
In 2003 the Canadian Pacific Railway sold off the portion of its line that runs east of Montreal through northern Maine to Portland to a private company headquartered in Chicago known as the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. The enterprise (like all well-run American enterprises headed by MBA types) was almost completely levered, which meant after paying interest, bribes and executive salaries didn’t have much left over to maintain the tracks. I can testify to this, as the tracks run close to our country house, and we sometimes walk on them. The wood is rotten, the rails in bad shape, and there is grass where there should be gravel in the road bed. They also use inferior equipment. In the particular case in question, they used tank cars for explosive material (it could just as well been something toxic like sulphuric acid) that are no longer permitted because the walls are not at least one inch thick. But they got a variance which allowed the company to ship oil in them until they were replaced, which in the case of this company would have been never. Not surprisingly, when the train derailed in the middle of a small town (which could have been Montreal or Portland, Maine for that matter), they exploded.
The train, composed of 70 tank cars and five engines to draw them, had only one engineer. This is also a variance, which they got from the Canadian regulatory agency last year. I’d like you to imagine a heavily loaded train carrying explosive or toxic materials going through your town with only one person to make sure it gets through safely. At Nantes, QC, the engineer got off the train to take a nap. He would be replaced by an American crew (of one!) to take the train through Maine. The locomotive motors were left running to maintain pressure in the air brake system. While he was napping one of the engines caught on fire. A local noticed, and called the fire department, which put the fire out. The breaks having failed, the train moved out of the station on a grade that fell some 350 feet in 12 kilometers. By the time it reached the town it was going close to 50 miles an hour into a curve that it had to take at 5 miles. The rest is history. It is hardly worth mentioning that the Company President blamed the Nantes fire department.
The whole episode seems to me to sum up what has become of American capitalism. Over-leveraged, shoddy product and performance, milking the enterprise of its capital, and capturing regulators to get away with it. It is the banking disaster writ small. In the mean time the investigators have found only 5 bodies of the 60 to 80 that were incinerated in the center of town when the train exploded.
Rabble has reported that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway is owned by Rail World which describes itself thusly:
A railway management, consulting and investment corporation specializing in privatizations and restructurings. Its purpose is to promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills. Rail World was incorporated in July 1999 by Edward A. Burkhardt, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer.
Rabble says that the MMAR network is a cobbling together of old and secondary lines, up to a century old as a matter of fact, gathered in from larger companies over the past decades in an endless quest for profits. Rail World, Rabble reports:
...operates former state-owned rail lines in Poland, Finland, The Ukraine and the Baltic states. Edward Burkhardt oversaw the privatization of the rail and ferry networks in New Zealand during the 1990s. He serves as the honorary-consul for New Zealand in Chicago.
Meanwhile Edward Burkhardt has pointed the finger of blame at everyone but himself. First he blamed the local firefighters and then he blamed the workers at his company.
Burkhardt is a living symbol of the pitfalls of deregulation, deunionization, privatization and the other features of laissez-faire capitalism. He first made his mark in the late 1980s, when his Wisconsin Central Railroad took advantage of federal railroad deregulation, via the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, to purchase 2,700 miles of track from the Soo Line and remake it into a supposedly dynamic and efficient carrier. That efficiency came largely from operating non-union and thus eliminating work rules that had promoted safety.
Wisconsin Central — which also took advantage of privatization to acquire rail operations in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand — racked up a questionable safety record. Burkhardt was forced out of Wisconsin Central in a boardroom dispute in 2001, but he continued his risky practices after his new company, Rail World, took over the Bangor and Aroostook line in 2003 and renamed it MMA.
Faced with operating losses, Burkhardt and his colleague Robert Grindrod targeted labor costs with little concern about the safety consequences. In 2010 the Bangor Daily News reported that MMA was planning to reduce its crews to one person in Maine, which, amazingly, was allowed by state officials. Grindrod blithely told the newspaper: “Obviously, if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you’re saving 50 percent of your labor component.” The company also succeeded in getting permission for one-man crews in Canada.
Inadequate staffing may have also played a role in a 2009 incident at an MMA maintenance facility in Maine in which more than 100,000 gallons of oil were spilled during a transfer in the facility’s boiler room. In 2011 the EPA fined the company $30,000 for Clean Water Act violations.
MMA’s continued to have safety problems even before the Lac-Megantic disaster. The Wall Street Journal reported that MMA had 23 accidents, injuries or other reportable mishaps from 2010 to 2012 and that on a per-mile basis the company’s rate was much higher than the U.S. national average.
Capital has one goal, one reason for its existence, to accumulate more capital, to produce what we commonly call capital. That's it. Nothing else matters. Nothing else can get in the way.
And then there is all that oil and the whole Tar Sands situation...pipelines aren't the only way to transport oil, you know. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Peter Tertzakian, an energy economist with ARC Financial Corporation in Calgary points out, "One has to keep in mind that 10 unit trains is equal to one Keystone XL. And 10 trains isn't that many.
Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada agrees, " Rail, obviously, has become a very important option."
Isn't it interesting how so many things come together when you dig a little.
Meanwhile, there is the question as to whether the train explosion even took place in Canada.
The following is from Mohawk Nation News.