POLITICS

Date for preliminary hearing for Lac-Megantic accused to be set in March

01/15/2015 02:49 EST | Updated 03/17/2015 05:59 EDT
LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - Three railway employees charged in the Lac-Megantic train disaster will be back in court in March to have a date set for a preliminary hearing.

Of the three accused, only train engineer Tom Harding appeared in court in person today as the date was set.

Harding, railway traffic controller Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre, the manager of train operations, each face 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one for each victim of the July 2013 oil-train derailment in the Quebec town.

A conviction carries a maximum life sentence.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Canada, a subsidiary of the now-bankrupt Montreal Maine and Atlantic, faces the same charges as the three individuals.

The union and lawyers representing Harding and Labrie urged the Crown last year to drop the charges in light of findings by the Transportation Safety Board. Demaitre is not unionized.

They said prosecutors should re-evaluate the case following the release of a TSB report that criticized the train's operator, Montreal, Maine and Atlanticailway, for its ''weak safety culture.''

The report also targeted Transport Canada for its poor oversight of the industry, particularly amid a boom in oil-by-rail shipments across the continent.

Prosecutors said at the time the TSB report did not change anything about the police evidence that had already been evaluated.

The report identified 18 contributing factors it says led to the crash.

They included the fact Harding applied an insufficient number of hand brakes on the train and conducted an inadequate test before he left the convoy unattended for the night.

His lawyer, Thomas Walsh, has said Harding's actions amounted to ''human error,'' not ''wanton and reckless disregard,'' which he added was necessary for a criminal-negligence conviction.

He also pointed to the TSB's findings on Transport Canada and the MMA.

The TSB report concluded the railway did not thoroughly identify security risks and did not have a functioning safety management system — both contributing factors to the crash.

Before he left the scene, Harding called MMA's dispatcher to report mechanical problems on the locomotive and thick smoke belching from its exhaust. They agreed he could leave the engine for the night, so he retired to a hotel.

Later in the night, a fire broke out on the locomotive. Firefighters called to the scene shut down the engine, which allowed its air brakes to slowly disengage.

An MMA track foreman with no background in locomotives met firefighters at the scene. After consulting the rail-traffic controller, they left without restarting the locomotive. Eventually, the train started rolling toward Lac-Megantic, where it derailed and exploded.