It’s the corporations we should be regulating

The history of regulations goes back to the early civilizations of Greece and Egypt.

The history of regulations goes back to the early civilizations of Greece and Egypt. Their purpose then as it is now is to protect society from the negative consequences of risks and hazards. Regulations, backed by the power of laws, govern what we wear, what we eat, where and how we live, and all but the most benign of our daily activities. From seat belts to light switches, from milk cartons to band aids, almost everything we touch, look at and do is subject to regulations of one kind or another.

By the 1960s, neo-liberal theorists began to insist that society was over-regulated and over-governed to the point of suffocation. They set out to promote individual freedom by getting regulators out of our hair, and to achieve this goal they called for a reduction in the capacity of governments to regulate our lives.

But efforts to de-regulate were concentrated on corporate activities, not on people. Neo-liberalism has been rather successful, as today’s corporations enjoy a far greater scope of self-regulation than citizens do. One needs only to look at the recent train wreck at Lac Mégantic for an example of the potential consequences of corporate deregulation.

Imagine a train of 72 loaded tanker cars operated by just one person. Imagine over seven million litres of oil sitting on an inclined track, unguarded, and unattended, with hand brakes only applied to some cars. One of the five locomotives is kept idling, doors unlocked, as the lone person in charge leaves at the end of his shift. Some time later the idling locomotive catches fire. The local fire department is alerted. The burning locomotive is shut down and the fire is extinguished. The incident is reported to the rail company and the firemen go back to bed. What happened next was the stuff of international headlines.

The investigation of this disaster will take months if not years to reach definitive conclusions as to the what, where, how, and who of this catastrophe. And whatever facts the investigation will ultimately reveal, they will add nothing new to what has been known for over a century about the risks involved in rail transport. This was not the first time that railway cars left unattended on a sloping track rolled away and crashed.

The difference in this case is that the cars were not empty, or loaded with coal or some other low-hazard goods, and they did not crash in the middle of nowhere. This time the cars were loaded with oil, and they gathered speed up to 100 km/h before crashing in the night, in the middle of a town.

But could regulations have prevented the Lac Mégantic disaster?

To answer that question we need to compare current railway regulations – regulations that permitted the Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railway corporation to abandon a train loaded with over 7 million litres of oil on a sloping track – to regulations applied to other industries, like the airline industry.

Compare safety regulations applied to people in airports to safety regulations applied to railway companies. Even small regional airports are required to provide a crew to perform a careful X-ray check of all luggage. In addition, passengers must take off their wristwatch, remove their shoes, open belt buckles, and walk through a scanner before entering the departure lounge.

If safety regulations as strict as those required in the airline industry were applied to the rail industry that 1.4 km long train would been run by a crew. It would have been equipped with enough wheel chocks to secure every one of the 288 tanker car axles. It would have been parked on a siding with locked switches at both ends of the train set in direction of buffers.

Rail barons would argue that doing so would be an expense – adding an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to every litre of oil transported by that fateful train. Are we not willing to pay the price?

Had tighter regulations had been in place and followed, Lac Mégantic would still be unknown beyond Quebec’s borders. This event leaves me with one question: Have we taken neo-liberalism’s deregulation mania too far?