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With more oil to be shipped by rail, train derailments show enduring safety gaps

by Mark Winfield and Bruce Campbell, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Canada

The recent runaway CP Rail train in the Rocky Mountains near Field, B.C., highlighted ongoing gaps in Canada’s railway safety regime, more than five years after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that killed 47 residents of the small Québec town.

The British Columbia crash resulted in the deaths of three railway workers and the derailment of 99 grain cars and two locomotives.

In the B.C. accident, the train involved had been parked for two hours on a steep slope without the application of hand brakes in addition to air brakes.

The practice of relying on air brakes to hold trains parked on slopes was permitted by both the company and by Transport Canada rules. Revised operating rules, adopted after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, had not required the application of hand brakes under these circumstances.

The latest accident was one of a rash of high-profile train derailments in Canada since the beginning of 2019. While none compares in magnitude with Lac-Mégantic, they evoke disturbing parallels to that tragedy. Although investigations are ongoing, what we do know raises questions about whether any lessons have in fact been learned from the 2013 disaster.

Now must apply hand brakes

Within days of the B.C. runaway, both CP Rail and Transport Canada mandated the application of hand brakes in addition to air brakes for trains parked on slopes. This after-the-fact measure parallels the action Transport Canada took days after Lac-Mégantic, prohibiting single-person crews, after having granted permission to Montréal Maine and Atlantic Railway to operate its massive oil trains through Eastern Québec with a lone operator.

Furthermore, like the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, existing mechanical problems with the locomotives involved reportedly played a role in the CP Rail derailment, raising questions about the adequacy of oversight with regard to equipment maintenance practices.

Like Lac-Mégantic, worker fatigue may have also played a role in the crash. Despite efforts within Transport Canada to force railways to better manage crew fatigue, railway companies have long resisted. Instead they have taken page out of the tobacco industry playbook by denying inconvenient scientific evidence as “emotional and deceptive rhetoric.”

The situation has prompted the Transportation Safety Board to put fatigue management on its watchlist of risky practices, stating that Transport Canada has been aware of the problem for many years but is continuing to drag its feet.

Oil-by-rail traffic explodes

The implications of the B.C. accident take on additional significance in light of the dramatic growth seen in oil-by-rail traffic in Canada over the past year. Export volumes reached a record 354,000 barrels per day in December 2018, with the vast majority of the oil going to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast and Midwest.

This development has not gone unnoticed by people living in communities across North America, who are concerned about the growing danger of another disastrous derailment.

The increase in traffic — now bolstered by the Alberta government’s plan to put another 120,000 barrels per day of crude oil on the rails by next year — is occurring at a time when the Transportation Safety Board reported a significant increase in “uncontrolled train movements” during 2014-17 compared to the average of the five years preceding the disaster.


Read more: Technology to prevent rail disasters is in our hands


This is despite the board’s Lac-Mégantic investigation report recommendation that Transport Canada implement additional measures to prevent runaway trains.

Two weeks after the B.C. crash, a CN train carrying crude oil derailed near St. Lazare, Man.; 37 tank cars left the tracks, punctured and partially spilled their contents. The cars were a retrofitted version of the TC-117 model tank car, developed after Lac-Mégantic, intended to prevent spills of dangerous goods. The train was travelling at 49 mph, just under the maximum allowable speed.

Budgets chopped

In the lead-up to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Harper government squeezed bothTransport Canada’s rail safety and transportation of dangerous goods oversight budgets. These budgets did not increase significantly after the disaster.

Justin Trudeau’s government pledged additional resources for rail safety oversight. However, Transport Canada’s plans for the coming years show safety budgets falling back to Harper-era levels. It remains to be seen whether these plans will be reversed in the upcoming federal budget.

Safety Management Systems-based approach remains the centrepiece of Canada’s railway safety system. That system been fraught with problems since it was introduced 17 years ago.

It continues to allow rail companies to, in effect, self-regulate, compromising safety when it conflicts with bottom-line priorities. Government officials claim there has been a major increase in the number of Transport Canada rail safety inspectors conducting unannounced, on-site inspections. But the inspectors’ union questions these claims.

If an under-resourced regulator, with a long history of deference to the industry, is unable to fulfil its first-and-foremost obligation to ensure the health and safety of its citizens, the lessons of Lac-Mégantic have still not been learned. The B.C. accident highlights that the window for history to repeat itself remains wide open.


This article is republished with permission. It was first published on The Conversation website.

About the Authors Authors

Mark Winfield is a Professor of Environmental Studies, York University, Canada

Bruce Campbell is an Adjunct professor, York University, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Canada

Better Response to Dangerous Goods Incidents Demanded by Community

As reported in the Terrace Standard, leaders in the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako in the interior of British Columbia have called for Canada’s railway operators to improve their response to incidents involving dangerous goods being carried by rail cars.

The Directors of Regional District of Bulkley Nechako are considering a resolution that calls for the provincial government to take the lead in talks with CN Rail to beef up response capabilities.

Canada’s Transportation Minister, Marc Garneau, has told his department to investigate railway incidents in Canada.  As reported in the Globe and Mail, derailments, collisions and other railway incidents soared in the first four months of 2018.

“The volunteer fire departments in the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako do not have the equipment, manpower, or expertise to respond to a notable dangerous goods event in a populated area,” notes background material prepared by regional district staffers for the directors.

“Increased training along will not increase local response capability to any notable degree. Also, many populated areas … are not serviced by a fire department.”

The background material adds that the regional district “and member municipalities are expected to response to a dangerous good incident, with CN Rail being prepared to respond to a dangerous goods event within 12 to 24 hours of being notified. Most of their response resources are located in Alberta.”

The resolution proposal builds on an earlier one which called for fire chiefs and local officials to have full information on the nature of dangerous goods being transported their their areas of jurisdiction.

But regional district staffers then noted that many areas of the province have a limited capacity to deal with a dangerous goods emergency.

“In staff’s opinion, CN Rail needs to play a lead role in developing rail emergency response strategy that is appropriate for northern British Columbia and other areas of the province where local response capacit, and CN Rail response capacity, is not adequate,” indicates the background material.

The new proposed resolution comes at a time of increased rail traffic on the part of CN Rail as the shipment of goods and material to and from port facilities at Prince Rupert increases.

Regional district directors June 7 approved of the new resolution during a committee of the whole session last week and it will be presented during the regional district’s regular meeting tomorrow.

Resolutions forwarded to Union of B.C. Municipalities conventions, if adopted, are then used as topics of discussion with senior governments.

Train Derailment (Photo Credit: (Transportation Safety Board)

 

Class Action suit filed against CN Rail for derailment

As reported in the Sudbury Star, a Timmins law firm has sent a letter out to Gogama area residents and cottagers advising that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against CN Rail in connection with the derailment of an oil tanker train and subsequent oil spill that occurred on March 7, 2015.

The letter, signed by James Wallbridge of Wallbridge, Wallbridge Trial Lawyers of Timmins, was to advise residents to sign retainer agreements or to indicate whether or not they wish the law firm to proceed on their behalf.

The derailment and oil spill occurred in the area of the Makami River bridge, on the CN mainline near the village of Gogama, a town in Northeastern Ontario located between Timmins and Sudbury.  An eastbound CN Rail train hauling 94 tank cars had a derailment after riding over a broken rail. In all, 39 tank cars left the track.  Some of the cars fell into the river next to be bridge, exploded and burst into flame. Several of the cars were breached releasing many hundreds of thousands of litres of synthetic crude oil into the river and the surrounding environment.

Gogama train derailment

Wallbridge’s letter said the claim against CN Rail was filed back in July and that there are indications that the clean-up of the oil spill in the area is not properly done yet.

“We are advised by Fred Stanley of Walters Forensic Engineering that the cleanup continues notwithstanding CN and the Ministry of the Environment’s view the oil spill cleanup is complete,” said the letter.

Wallbridge went on to suggest that more environmental testing would be needed early next year.

“We are of the view that next spring may be an appropriate time to review the work that has been done and undertake independent testing. We have spoken to the Ministry of Environment’s legal counsel about testing and have indicated that we anticipate their cooperation in reviewing the overall cleanup.”

Wallbridge also advised that his firm has indicated that the timetable for the class action should be “held in abeyance” pending a review of the cleanup in May and June of 2018.

He said his firm elected to proceed by class action to preserve the limitation period of two years from the date of the occurrence. The class action serves to suspend the limitation period during the certification process, the letter said.

The Gogama-Makami River derailment was the second CN oil train derailment in that area in the winter of 2015. Both occurred along the section of the CN mainline known as the Ruel Subdivision. Another train hauling tank cars had derailed three weeks previous, on Feb. 14, 2015, in a remote bush and wetlands area, about 35 kilometres north of Gogama.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board filed a report in August saying that a broken section of rail was the cause of the derailment at the Makami River bridge.