Political repercussions of train crash grow

OTTAWA – A push for parliamentarians to meet this summer to assess railway safety has more to do with partisan politics than with Quebec’s horrific train crash, the chairman of the House of Commons transport committee said Friday.

Conservative MP Larry Miller was responding to calls from the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois to convene committee hearings as early as next month in the wake of the Lac-Megantic disaster.

“Right now is not the time to play politics and I just don’t think the committee can accomplish anything,” Miller said in an interview from his riding in Owen Sound, Ont.

“It’s one thing to stand up and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to meet and we’re going to do this.’ That’s all fine. But there has to be something concrete that we can actually do or it’s just a waste of everybody’s time.”

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Like it or not, whether offensive or defensive, last Saturday’s deadly derailment set off political repercussions in Ottawa almost immediately.

Those reverberations are only likely to grow as the immediate human tragedy recedes from what Wendy Tadros, the chair of the Transportation Safety Board, said “may well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history.”

Twenty-eight people are confirmed dead and another 22 are missing and presumed dead as police and investigators continue to comb through the aftermath of the 72 runaway tankers of crude oil that levelled the town centre.

The tragedy postponed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s much anticipated cabinet makeover, which is now expected to take place early next week.

Instead of visiting Rideau Hall, Harper was in Lac-Megantic last Sunday surveying the wreckage.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had already beat Harper to the street and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau followed soon after.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has been to Lac-Megantic twice, garnering applause and hugs the second time around after announcing $60 million in funding and denouncing the railway company’s American CEO.

Plans to remodel Harper’s front bench were shelved as the Conservatives moved to ensure they had a continuous and high-profile presence on the ground in the Quebec town.

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But with so many cabinet ministers either having announced their retirement or waiting on the sidelines for their next assignment, all major government decisions have been deferred — including action linked to Lac-Megantic.

The government has now been without a public safety minister for five days. Sources say Harper is ready to fill that void and go through with his earlier plans for a wholesale cabinet overhaul.

New Democrats, meanwhile, earned widespread ire for leaping to link the crash to purported government funding cuts. Mulcair attempted to douse the controversy, but the NDP has not stopped pointing a finger at Ottawa.

NDP MP Olivia Chow, a vice-chair of the committee, says all four New Democrats on the committee are willing to begin hearings in August — not to assess the crash specifics but rather to look at broader rail safety concerns.

Chow says potential witnesses could include the auditor general and officials from Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board.

“I would ask the Transportation Safety Board to explain the various recommendations they’ve had in the past, and then ask Transport Canada why they’re not doing them,” said Chow.

Daniel Paille, leader of the four-seat Bloc Quebecois, has also requested a special Commons committee meeting to examine rail safety, particularly the movement of dangerous goods in urban settings.

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But Miller says politicians need to get out of the way and let police and transportation safety investigators do their job.

“If there’s something that points toward Transport Canada, of course we’ll have to deal with that,” he said of the Commons committee.

“But that’s not clear at this point and it seems to be that there may have been negligence with the company. But again that’s just initial thoughts that I’m just repeating what I’m hearing.”

On Wednesday, Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of U.S.-based Rail World Inc., which owns the runaway train, blamed the engineer for failing to set the hand brakes properly before the accident.

“He said he applied 11 hand brakes,” Burkhardt said. “We think that’s not true.”

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the unmanned train — all but one of its 73 cars laden with oil — hurtled down a 11-kilometre incline, derailed and exploded in the centre of town.

Investigators are looking into a fire on the same train just hours earlier. A fire official has said the train’s power was shut down as standard operating procedure, disabling the train’s air brakes.

“The long and short of this is we need to let them conduct this (investigation) and we’ll go forward from there,” Miller said.

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An independent government report in 2011 pointed to long-standing weaknesses in Ottawa’s oversight of the transportation of dangerous goods.

Transport Canada said it would address all the recommendations by April this year, but has yet to meet all its commitments.

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