Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ottawa Bus Crash

Monday morning a double-decker city transit bus collided with a passenger train in Ottawa.  Six killed and about 30 injured in one of those horrific things that happen in the world, in this case a little too close to home.  We’re going to overlook the tragedy for the time being and focus on what were the potential contributing factors as the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) sifts through several months worth of investigation.  By the way, the TSB is very thorough:  If there is a golden nugget, they’ll find it.

The OCTranspo bus, here, weighs in at 52,911 pounds, about 26 tons.  A passenger train weighs in around 60 tons per car, with the engine weighing around 268,800 pounds, or 134 tons.  Easy math, the bus will lose.  So will people walking on the tracks, or a car, or a tractor trailer full of steel beams.  The train is bigger, weighs more and can’t stop nearly as well as any bus, truck, snowmobile, ATV, hiker, moose, or scooter puke on a Vespa listening to Juice Newton bootlegs on his iPod with the volume up at 11. 

Train versus any thing usually ends poorly for the other thing.

A major contributing factor in Ottawa is what is called a grade crossing or a level crossing.  There are more than 40,000 of them in Canada, most of the white cross-buck warning, without lights, bells or barricades.  The vast majority are rural, off the beaten path and the locals know enough to stop, look and listen.  In urban areas, we get the full lights, bells and barricades treatment to keep us from being complete idiots.  Even then, there are idiots out there that this link gives you enough examples of just how dumb humans can be.

The fix is to keep trains away from vehicles.  Underpasses or overpasses cost money, but they work well at keeping the two apart.  High speed rail, by definition has no, or almost no level crossings to keep a 300 kilometer per hour passenger train away from everyone else.  They almost always have their own dedicated tracks to keep them away from other trains too, the engineering of complete separation ensuring more potential for safety.  Not safety as an absolute, but the potential for safety.  Barcelona is an example of the human overriding the potential for safety in high-speed rail accidents. 

Canada flirted with high-speed rail in the mid-60’s with the CN Turbo Train.  On its maiden trip, the Turbo clobbered truck at a level crossing near Kingston, ON, essentially pulling the plug on high-speed rail in Canada.  The costs were prohibitive to give the Turbo Train a dedicated, safe, right of way in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.  Move the calendar to 2013 and the problem is still with us.  Land, bridges, overpasses, underpasses and infrastructure all cost a lot of money for very little visible return, except for that nebulous concept of safety.

Like pilots, train engineers and bus drivers, those people are always first at the accident and have a vested interest in things being as safe as we can make them.

The cheapest and fastest fix today is to legislate that any vehicle that carries more than 10 people or weighs more than 10 tons must come to a full stop at any railroad crossing, lights or not and only proceed when the way is clear.  It’s a simple, cheap fix the Provincial and Federal governments can put in place in a dozen phone calls, some emails and a couple of weeks work. 

Which is why it won’t be done.  Stop.  Look.  Listen.

Twelve Years Later

A dozen years after 9/11 and it is still weird seeing that date on the calendar.  There is a smaller psychic wobble now as we’ve moved on from 2001, not really healed, but at least being able to cope with how we feel about things.

Like most, we remember where we were when it happened, in our case on a flight to San Francisco from Ottawa, to start building out some Hands-On Labs for that little company called Microsoft.  The flight got as far as Lake Ontario, when it was told to turn around, go back to YOW, land, get the pax off and shut it down to await further instructions.  That’s all the flight crew knew.  I called home to a tearful spouse who told me the rest of the story:  A plane had crashed into the WTC in New York.  I passed that data to the other passengers and the flight attendant nearby, who passed it on to the crew.

Landing and disembarking, we were confronted with 3,000 deadly quiet others in the Ottawa Airport, staring open-mouthed at the TV screens, not making a sound, not comprehending what they were seeing as the second plane had just punched a hole in our collective innocence.  I got the bags and met Marylou at the curb.  We hustled home and parked on the sofa for the next two days, unbelieving, uncomprehending and confused.

To this day those scenes are burned into our minds as they should be.  They caused a ripple of hurt, anger and confusion as there was no valid reason for this to happen to us.  Or so we thought. 

We haven’t fixed any of it.  Some would say that the military-industrial-security complex that suddenly popped up made sure we would never feel safe again.  A fearful populace is a compliant populace who will pay for and demand every possible protection and agree to every possible intrusion on our privacy as long as the government promises to never let that happen again.  As long as we didn’t have to see a tower turn into powder and fall to the ground, we bent over.

A dozen years on now, we should revisit how we reacted and what has been done in our name to ‘protect’ us from that hurt. I’m not saying it was all good, nor all bad:  Like all humans making decisions on the fly we may have made mistakes that we should go back and look at again.

And at the same time, remember those who lost so much on September 11, 2001.

Ariel Castro Exits Stage Left, Feet First

Ariel Castro decided to take the coward’s way out on Monday, hanging himself in his cell, using a bed sheet to escape the 1,000 year sentence he received for ten years of kidnapping, raping and assaulting three women in Cleveland, Ohio.  This is the story, if you’re not up on the details.

Our commentary is not on the horrendous particulars, but on the application of Justice.  We’re using the upper-case J in justice for a reason.  Law is one thing, usually ordained and managed by the judiciary, endorsed by voters and at least conceptually messed with by politicians on our behalf. 

Justice is something else.

We have laws for just  about everything from the definition of Grade A eggs to how to settle fence disputes in the country.  Often there are minimum penalties, or scales of fines for everything that comes under the purview of the law.  Justice tends to be a little more on the Hammurabi Code side:  Eye for an Eye, an Ear for an Ear and so on.  If you vandalize my car, I’d get Justice if I trashed your car to an equal amount.

However, when the Law gets involved, sometimes Justice has to go blind.  We’ve moved away from Justice, in most cases for the overall good.  We can imagine the specter of a malpractice suit being settled by a family member with a bricklayer’s hammer and a surgeon’s hand , under the supervision of the court and think that perhaps this might not be good.  Entertaining as heck, but not really, socially, good.

Then there are monsters like Ariel Castro, or our two homegrown beasts, Clifford Olsen and Paul Bernardo who have crossed way over the line that we, as a society, have established as “Very, very Bad”

Estimates of how much it costs us, as taxpayers, to keep these monsters incarcerated vary widely from $30,000 to $140,000 per year.  They have to be treated with a modicum of civility, fed, housed securely, usually separate from the other prisoners, given medical care, education and at least the tiniest of steps towards rehabilitation, assuming we don’t execute them.  Even then, the bar to execution is set so high, that the legal fees incurred with mandatory appeals, easily quadruple the costs borne, before we even get to the intellectual point of is state-ordered execution the best we can do?

We prefer to ignore the arguments either for or against the Death Penalty.  There are sound arguments for and against it,  with greater minds that ours arguing passionately on both sides.  It is often too much of a Law discussion, while we are more concerned with Justice.

Justice would have seen Ariel Castro, or others of his ilk, placed in General Population, not Segregation, or a Special Handling Unit.  Prison has its own version of Justice.  Castro would have to endure years of abuse, not enough to kill him, but enough to make every moment of every day and every night a continuous horror of constant violation in every imaginable and several unimaginable ways.  Then, after a few years he would likely die at the brutal hands of an inmate with nothing to lose and nothing to do on a Tuesday evening except beat him slowly to death with his fists and boots over several hours. 

That of course would have been outside the law, not permissible, forbidden. Illegal.

But it would have been Justice.