I drove down to Lac-Mégantic on Sunday to join the thousands commemorating the tragic loss of life that occurred one year ago when a train, laden with crude oil, derailed in a crowded area of the town, setting off a series of tanker car explosions that killed 47 people and shattered the lives of so many more.
On my way there, I drove through the village of Nantes, 11 kilometres to the northwest of Lac-Mégantic. This is where the fateful train began its out-of-control journey, a massive weapon rolling inexorably towards the heart of a community. I could see very clearly how the rail bed sloped downwards on its way out of Nantes, allowing the train in question to build up speed from the simple effect of gravity. How could this have been allowed to happen?
To put it bluntly: it was a failure to take the proper safety measures to prevent the train from ever moving by itself. It was also a failure to understand the explosive nature of the crude oil being carried by the train.
The main purpose of the commemorative ceremony was to remember those who lost their lives one year ago. It was also more than that. As firefighters lined the street in front of Sainte-Agnès church, it was also important to pay tribute to the courage and heroism of first responders and to acknowledge the many who, for the past year, have supported the community through this tragedy.
As I watched and spoke to some of the residents, it was clear to me that they have been profoundly changed by what happened a year ago. While they are resilient, it will still take time and it will never be quite the same for most. The death of 47 people in a small, tightly-knit community turned their world upside down. I felt that everyone in Lac-Mégantic knew someone who died that night.
As we mark this solemn occasion by remembering those we lost, we must also strengthen our resolve to ensure that the tragic events of Lac-Mégantic are never repeated. Our railways are vital to our Canadian infrastructure and economy, and it is the responsibility of the Canadian government to ensure that we have the safest rail system in the world.
Trains will continue to pass through the hearts of our communities from coast to coast to coast, and more must be done to ensure they do so as safely as possible.
Transport Canada has done some good things. The 5,000 least crash-resistant DOT-111 tanker cars have been retired and the others are being phased out or retrofitted. Trains carrying dangerous goods will now have to do so with an emergency response plan that can be shared with first responders.
However, there is more work to be done. The Auditor General recently expressed his concern that "Transport Canada does not have a quality assurance plan to continuously improve its oversight of rail safety." The inspectors in charge of deciding if a railway's Safety Management System is adequate lack the proper training materials needed to make those judgments.
The Auditor General also found that Transport Canada lacked data in important areas such as the condition of railway bridges. These problems must be addressed as soon as possible.
As my colleague David McGuinty recently wrote: Canada was brought together as a country by rail and many of us continue to live near the same rail lines that helped build Canada. On the anniversary of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, let us commit to ensuring Canada's rail system is the safest in the world.
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