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Originally published July 10, 2013 at 5:51 PM | Page modified July 10, 2013 at 11:38 PM

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Canada train derailment puts brakes in spotlight

The fiery, deadly derailment of an oil tanker train in Quebec has raised questions over how the train rolled away and how the brakes should have worked.

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The deadly derailment of an oil tanker train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, over the weekend has raised questions over how the unmanned 73-car train rolled away from where it had been stopped. The head of the train's railway company on Wednesday blamed the accident on an employee who he said had failed to properly set its hand brakes.

TWO SETS OF BRAKES

Such freight trains have an electronic air brake system and hand brakes, which do not require the train's power to be on. Investigators are looking into a fire reported on the same train less than about an hour before Saturday's disaster. A local fire official has said the train's engine was shut down - standard operating procedure dictated by the train's owners. When the train's power is turned off, the air brakes are disabled, and the hand brakes are needed.

SETTING ENOUGH HAND BRAKES

Hand brakes are set on individual cars. Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway's parent company, Rail World Inc., says an employee failed to properly set the hand brakes in this case. "We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is did he apply enough of them," Burkhardt said. Investigators have said they are looking into both sets of brakes for the train.

PUTTING THEM TO THE TEST

Officials with Canada's transportation agency, Transport Canada, this week explained that such a train by law must have a "sufficient amount" of hand brakes set so the train doesn't move. Because size and weight vary by train, there is no predetermined number of brakes required. Instead, the train's locomotive engineer must perform a "push-pull" test before leaving the train to make sure enough hand brakes have been set.

WORKING ALONE

In this case, the train was manned by a single worker, the engineer. There are no rules against one-person crews, Luc Bourdon, Transport Canada's director general for rail safety, said this week. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the train's owner, successfully applied last year to have just a single operator on the line. Bourdon also said it is rare - but not against the rules - to leave a train unattended on a main line.

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