Thursday, August 15, 2013

Last minute decision

A couple of nights ago, I was called as the engineer on train 41251-10, from Edmonton to Vermilion.  It was over 10,000 feet long and weighed just over 10,000 tons.  About 15 miles east of Edmonton, I had 412 doing the speed limit of 35 mph.  We were cruising around a curve in the dark when I spotted what I thought was a deer between the rails.  That's not rare, and usually as you get closer, deer jump out of the way.  

But as I rounded the curve and my headlights found the straight rail, I saw that it wasn't a deer between the rails, but a person.  He was standing there, looking back over his shoulders and me and 412 bearing down on him fast.  Only about 250m away, there wasn't much I could do that would make any difference... if he didn't decide to move.

I blew the whistle.  I grabbed the brake handle (even though there was no chance of stopping in time).  And then, just when I was sure we were going to get him, he  stepped over the rail and sat down, right on the roadbed.  As I roared past him, I looked out my side window to see if he'd been far enough away from the side of the train.  He was clear of us by a foot, or so.

I'd expected to see shear terror on his face.  Instead, I saw a man in his mid-twenties with an expression I can only describe as overwhelming sadness.

On the radio, I called the Rail Traffic Controller and told them about the guy, who I'd pretty much decided was out to kill himself.  The train in front of me heard my call and told us  they'd seen the man standing in the farmer's field adjacent to the track about 20 minutes earlier.

I figured the guy was just 'measuring' trains to see how to kill himself... figuring out if we'd be able to stop if we saw him... how fast we travelled... if it would be quick.

All of that ran through my head in the three or four seconds I had between thinking he was a deer in my headlights and the time we roared past.

After I'd reported the incident to the Rail Traffic Coordinator, a CN supervisor called and asked me if I was all right.  "Do you want to stop your train?" he asked.  Until then, I hadn't thought about being affected one way or the other.  I started to go a bit weak in the knees, realising that his last minute decision had been a very good one for both of us.

Later that night, as 412 rumbled closer to Vermilion, the RTC called us and told us the police had found the man... nothing else.  I hope he finds some help.  I hope his last-minute decision to get out of the way of 41251-10 works out for him.  I know his decision saved me a whole lot of turmoil.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Head in the (oil) sand.

For the last three months, bitumen has been leaking to the surface of northern Alberta wetlands at an uncontrollable rate, and no one knows how to stop it.  Yet, Alberta's own Minister of the Environment, Diana McQueen, has made no public statement, other than to say our environmental regulations are tough.  Our premier, who showed so much leadership during the flooding of southern Alberta, is also noticeably absent.  And now the leader of the official opposition is writing op. ed. pieces for the NY Times, telling Americans why Alberta's bitumen is their best option for energy.

No one in our own government (or the official opposition) appears outraged by this massive, and continuing spill. That this tragic leak has killed wildlife and polluted the traditional lands of several Metis and First Nations communities rates no indignation.

Quite possibly, the ramifications of this spill are simply too dire for our government to consider.  If it turns out the seeping bitumen is a fundamental flaw in the injection process, rather than a one-off problem with an old well casing, it brings into question why leases were approved without the due diligence required to ensure our environment is sufficiently protected.  Better--it seems--just to cross our fingers and hope the seeping stops.  We've seen this lack of accountability over and over when it comes to holding industry to the standards Albertans agree are some of the best in the world.

While CNRL has apologized for what they have call "the incident," neither they nor the government has any idea when (or how) the spill can be brought under control.  In the meantime, our environment minister is nowhere to be found.  Our premier continues to expound to fellow premiers and American politicians about our "world-class" regulatory process.  Even our official opposition leader is spending her time writing pieces to the NY Times to convince Americans their own government is wrong about using Alberta's energy resources. 

Alberta has developed many state-of-the-art energy extraction methods.  However, that becomes meaningless when our political leaders ignore disasters such as the Primrose spill, in lieu of preaching standards they have no intention of enforcing.  In the marketplace, integrity means something in the long run, and Alberta's integrity is at stake.  It's time to enforce the regulations based on our values to build strong communities by building a viable, responsible and sustainable economy.  That cannot be done by ignoring problems.

William Munsey
Alberta Party