Several high-profile derailments have proven that railways and crude oil can be a dangerous mix. Accidents near Gogama, Ont. on Feb. 14 and March 7 both led to explosions which leaked crude oil and burned for days. There were other rail accidents in Northern Illinois and West Virginia this February.
Each situation involved CPC-1232 tank cars built since 2011 – a model that has reacted like the Class 111 tank cars involved in the Lac-Megantic railway on July 6, 2013.
The Lac-Megantic accident on its own spilled 1.5 million gallons of crude oil and killed 47 people. The heart of the town was decimated.
We’ve been fortunate that the most recent derailments and explosions occurred in remote areas and avoided human casualties.
But there is no overlooking the remaining damage to the environment, waterways and surrounding infrastructure.
The trucking industry is well aware of the dangers involved in hauling dangerous goods, and we have an enviable safety record in this work. Trucks haul the largest share of dangerous goods that move across the country, according to Statistics Canada.Accidents and spills are more likely to happen during handling rather than during transit.
Most recently we have embraced changes that harmonized the ways dangerous goods are identified in Canada and the US. But the volume of crude oil shipped along Canada’s iron highways continues to increase. Railways moved 200,000 barrels per day in 2013. The numbers increased to 700,000 barrels in 2014, and volumes could surpass the million barrel per day mark by the end of this year, depending on how lower commodity prices affect production levels.
There should be little wonder why the communities established along different rail lines are raising concerns. To their credit, railways have been taking steps to address the dangers.
The National Transportation Safety Board asked Transport Canada to ensure railway safety management systems exist, are working, and are effective.
There was a recommendation to put more physical defences in place to prevent runaways. Emergency response assistance plans are now created when large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons like oil are shipped. Other recommendations called for strategic route plans and enhanced operations for all trains carrying goods.
Since 2011, Class 111 tank cars like the ones involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster have also been built to the tougher requirements of CPC-1232.
Most recently, Transport Canada has announced plans to enhance the CPC-1232 standard.
The new TC 117 standard will require changes such as protection for top fittings, an outer cover to provide thermal protection, and 9/16-inch steel compared to the existing 7/16-inch standards. It is all great to hear. Transport Canada should be commended for taking action.
But the older 111 cars will continue to haul crude oil until May 2017. The CPC-1232 will be in place until July 2023. The amended regulations will not require superior Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, either.
Transport Canada is expected to include this in operating requirements instead.
It begs an important question: How do we improve public safety in the years leading up to these deadlines?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand and respect that rules need to be phased in over time. It is impractical and impossible to remove the older rail cars from service immediately. It would be no different if changes had to be made to any trailers hauled by on-road fleets.
But in the short term, the operational practices that are followed when hauling dangerous goods – specifically, crude oil – should be scrutinized by the federal government with a goal of recommending and implementing the steps that railways are required to take. Train speeds had already been reduced to 97 km/h along the Northern Ontario routes where the derailments occurred. In some areas they have been further reduced to 56 km/h. Early investigations have also led to questions about track conditions.
Perhaps the track maintenance procedures, and the related oversight, needs to be enhanced. Changes like these can surely be introduced before the equipment itself is renewed and replaced.
It is clear that Transport Canada needs to conduct a broader study to determine the cause of these derailments and the practices that could reduce the likelihood of future situations. The goal of protecting the public and our environment deserves nothing less.