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July 11, 2013 at 6:25 AM

What are the lessons from the Canadian oil train crash?

The death toll for the horrific accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec is now set at 50. Civil authorities and the railway company are still trying to sort out what happened.

The tragedy carries the official veneer of a criminal investigation, and the train engineer’s employer blames him for failing to properly set the brakes.

As an Associated Press story reports, all but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded. The story has so many pieces. An earlier fire on board is being investigated. Did the fire or extinguishing the fire do something to redundant brake systems? Was there malicious tampering with the train?

Even before Saturday’s derailment, oil trains had started to compete with coal trains for public attention. The themes were about the environmental hazards of the cargo, and much less about any explicit threat to public safety. Now we have this stark reminder about what is being hauled through cities, and hauled safely most of the time. The exceptions can be devastating.

Does the Canadian derailment provide a moment of brutal insight that moves public policy, or does this get the same dispensation as a tornado? That category of “terrible things happen,” and life goes on. What are the lessons learned, if any?

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