Yesterday, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded their investigation of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec train derailment that occurred on July 5, 2013. According to the final report, the accident was caused by a runaway train carrying crude oil that was parked at the top of a hill for the evening, but upon its brakes failing, slid down the tracks and crashed near the center of town resulting in an explosion killing 47 people. The TSB determined that eighteen factors led to the catastrophe, but emphasized a “weak safety culture” as one of the major causes.
TSB found that the rail operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which has since filed for bankruptcy, had a weak safety management system and lacked effective training and maintenance procedures. Their report also criticized the transportation ministry, Transport Canada, for a lack of management and regulation. The investigation found that Transport Canada was aware that MMA carried a higher risk of accidents in recent years due to an increase in the transportation of crude oil, yet performed few audits and failed to follow up when it uncovered problems.
The report recommends more comprehensive audits and improved technology to prevent runaway trains caused by brake failure. In January, the safety boards of Canada and the U.S. collaborated on suggestions to improve safety, given that crude oil transportation by train has increased considerably in the last ten years due to advanced technology and the subsequent shale boom. New Democrat Member of Parliament Hoang Mai has attributed the accident to the fact that “conservatives have left companies to monitor themselves,” and other opposition politicians have also blamed the federal government for the disaster.
Subway and commuter train workers in Brazil’s biggest city went on strike yesterday, paralyzing a system used daily by more than 4 million people and exacerbating already heavy traffic jams.
Ciro Moraes, a spokesman for the transportation workers’ union, said about 8,000 of the city’s 9,000 subway workers had walked off the jobs on Wednesday to demand a salary increase of about 20 percent (what amounts to an increase of about 14.99 percent in real terms). The city’s transport authority, the São Paulo Metro Company, has offered a 7-percent raise, or 4.15 percent in real terms.
São Paulo’s metro has fives lines, one of which is run by a private operator and was not affected by the strike. Of the affected lines, the red line is the most active, transporting 1.5 million passengers daily.
Transit authorities estimate that about 730,000 people were affected. Commuters without cars walked or waited in long lines for public buses. Those with cars sat in heavy traffic—at the peak of traffic, 249 kilometers (155 miles) of roads were backed up, breaking the city’s previous record of 191 km (118 miles), set in November 2004 after heavy rains. Angry subway users protested against the strike by blocking roads, throwing rocks and deflating buses’ tires and were dispersed by police with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The paralysis of Brazil’s business capital by a single, previously announced workers’ strike is in part a reflection of Brazil’s failure to invest in upgrading and developing new infrastructure. While other emerging economies like China and India also experience infuriating traffic in major metropolitan areas, Brazil’s investment in infrastructure—only 17 percent of GDP in recent years—has lagged behind theirs (44 percent of GDP in China and 38 percent in India). Economists say that poor infrastructure is one major factor—along with high taxes and cost of labor—limiting Brazil’s economic competitiveness.
Transportation systems in other major Brazilian cities, including Natal, Recife, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador, experienced similar logjams Wednesday in a separate strike by subway workers, bus drivers and commuter train operators.
Following its failure to attract private proposals for a high-speed rail between the cities of São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian government has decided to cancel the competitive bidding scheduled for July 29 and change the rules for the project. Bidding will now be split into two phases—one to determine the operator and technology for the train, and the other to establish the company or consortium that will construct it. The train may even be operated by state-controlled company ETAV, according to O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.
Bernardo Figueiredo, the director general of the Agência Nacional de Transportes Terrestres (National Agency of Land Transportation), attributed the lack of success in finding a bidder to difficulties between national and foreign companies in forming a consortium, which was a condition of the bidding process. “There were six groups with the technical knowledge but they had problems joining with civil construction firms,” Figueiredo explained. “Now we will separate the operation from the construction,” which will increase competition for the bids.
This is the third time the auction for the trem de alta velocidade (TAV) has been delayed. Bidding was originally supposed to take place in December 2010 but was postponed to April 2011 to accommodate potential bidders’ request for more time to analyze the project. In April it was again postponed to July to allow bidders to form consortiums. Following the latest changes, the first round of bidding is now expected to take place in September or October of this year, with the second round to follow in early 2012. Figueredo and other government officials have said the change in bidding process will not affect the project’s cost, estimated at a total of 38 billion reais ($24 billion), or its timeline, with construction expected to begin in 2013, though transport specialists and construction firms appear skeptical. Only a part of the TAV is likely to be completed by 2016.
The 500 kilometer (300 mile) rail link is considered a key infrastructure project for the government of Dilma Rousseff, which faces the notable challenge of upgrading and expanding its transportation infrastructure, especially in the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Companies from China, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and South Korea have demonstrated interest in the project, which will receive 20 billion reais ($13 billion) in loans from Brazilian development bank BNDES, and an additional $3.4 billion in direct government investment.
Guatemala’s first-ever public buses reserved exclusively for use by women began covering routes in Guatemala City yesterday during the peak rush hour times of 6:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.–7:00 p.m. The special fleet, which exempts male conductors and children under 12 from the restrictions, can be easily identified by pink ribbons or pink-colored signs bearing the explicit instructions: “For Women Only.”
Of greater metropolitan Guatemala City’s 3.5 million inhabitants, about half use the public bus system on a daily basis. According to the local Association of Urban Buses, an average of a dozen vehicles per day are attacked by armed assailants who rob passengers and regularly assault female riders. Congresswoman Zury Ríos Sosa, who spearheaded the gender-segregated bus initiative, says the new system will protect women and enhance their safety on public transportation. Ríos has said she would also like to create a women-only taxi system similar to those already established in Mexico City and other Latin American cities.
The first day of service was met with a mix of enthusiasm and confusion. Hundreds of women lined up to board the pink-ribboned buses, but some were made visibly nervous by male riders in nearby lines who appeared to mock the new routine. The system also created difficulties for riders unaccustomed to traveling without their husbands or older sons. Some men, who mistakenly boarded the new buses, were ordered off.
Yet, the system seemed to win the approval of its primary beneficiaries. One female passenger remarked, “It’s much better on these buses, because one is more relaxed, without the filth” or fear of unwanted advances by men.
President Barack Obama yesterday in Washington received his Mexican counterpart President Felipe Calderón in the fifth such encounter between the heads of state since 2009. Following the meeting, the leaders announced efforts to revive a program for the entry of Mexican commercial trucks into the United States. The controversial program, first launched in 2007, was cancelled in 2009 after loud protests by the U.S. trucking industry.
The issue has been a top priority for the Calderón administration, which claimed the ban on Mexican trucks’ entry was a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Shortly after the ban, Mexico imposed tariffs on 99 products of U.S. origin that ranged from pork, to chewing gum and pistachios. President Obama stated after the meeting that he would consult with Congress to settle the issue with Mexico and "strengthen the security of the passing trucks, lift tariffs (Mexican) of several billion dollars on American goods and create jobs on both sides of the border".
Congressional approval could come as early as this summer. It would form another pilot program in exchange for a gradual cancellation of all of Mexico’s punitive tariffs. Mexican truckers would need to meet several requirements, such as passing English and safety tests and proving that their trucks meet designated environmental standards. Under the proposed agreement, according to the White House, Mexico would reduce the tariffs by 50 percent at the signing of an agreement and suspend the remaining 50 percent when the first Mexican carrier is granted operating authority under the program.
Colombia’s alleged plans to build a 137mile interoceanic railway between a “new city” next to Cartagena and Cupica, in the northern part of Choco, sound really interesting. But unfortunately that’s about it. Even the backing of the mighty Chinese Development Bank might not be able to pull this one off. And it shouldn’t.
Let’s start with Cupica. Cupica? Really?
Anyone that has set foot in the Colombian Choco, the lush, scarcely populated, tropical rainforest region that stretches throughout the northern Pacific Coast, knows that this is not exactly a symbol of Colombia’s pride. It is a beautiful region, but ridden by violence, corrupt and very poor. A trip to Quibdó, its capital, takes 30 minutes on a small airplane from Medellín and up to 14 hours or more by car –that is, in the dry season. The land of the Embera Katios and other indigenous groups, a large afro-Colombian population, illegal goldminers, armed groups, and a few adventurers, has proven unlawful and ungovernable for decades. Building a new port with the goal of a new era of development in the Cupica area sounds awfully quixotic, sardonic, but perhaps more worryingly, completely misguided.
Leaving aside the environmental concerns, which have been discussed for years and should be again before such a plan remotely begins to take shape, the government will do better by paying close attention to the infrastructure the country really needs. This is especially true after the devastation created by the recent floods. First should the food come to the table, and then the wine. The dry canal project is like wine. It may bring out the food flavor, but is certainly not essential.
The votes were barely tallied and already the politics of high speed rail had begun. Some Republican gubernatorial candidates, freshly elected, were already asking that high speed rail (HSR) funds be reallocated to other transport priorities.
Democratic Governors-elect like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California were soon requesting that the rejected funds be reallocated to their states. Against this backdrop, the advocacy group U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) held a first post-election conference with a who's who of HSR including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Transportation Secretary Norm Minetta, forging more consensus. By mid-November, it was certain the Administration remained solidly behind their HSR vision, but Republicans were sending mixed messages.
Is the Obama-Biden initiative in danger? With Spain and China currently making significant investments in HSR, would America once again stand back while other countries are forging ahead? There are no simple answers to these questions.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama outlined a plan to develop America’s first nationwide program of high-speed intercity passenger rail service. Using the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Obama Administration made $8 billion available for developing or laying the groundwork for 13 corridors across the U.S. including the Northeast (where one out of five Americans live). Supporters of this initiative soon hailed it as the most significant infrastructure program since the Eisenhower Interstate Program of the 1950’s.
Building high speed corridors provides numerous public advantages. In addition to providing greater interconnectivity between communities and developing transportation alternatives, the success of high speed rail offers new opportunities for manufacturing, the movement of goods and services and brings environmental benefits. U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood sees this as a legacy project that will make America more competitive, more productive and more united. I agree and the early response from the investment program has been encouraging as the U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced that nearly $80 million in grants have already been delivered to states.
The Northeast corridor is of special interest to Québec. In April 2009, the Boston to Montréal corridor was identified as one of the major corridors by the Obama administration. As recently as October 2009, Québec Premier Jean Charest met with New York State Governor David Paterson about the possibility of exploring a second Northeast option: the New York-Albany-Montréal corridor. The latter idea is not new as it was first advocated in the 1970’s by then Montréal mayor, Jean Drapeau. Finally, Secretary LaHood in a February meeting in Washington with Premier Charest agreed to support the creation of task forces to actively study that option. Just a few days ago, the Québec government appointed former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Chrétien to co-head the Québec-New York task force.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.