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On the track to rail safety

When it comes to the transportation of dangerous goods by rail, what right do Canada’s municipalities have to know the volume involved, what those goods are and when they are coming through?

The answer: None, or at least it’s severely limited.

If railway safety isn’t an immediate concern for communities where the tracks don’t run through the centre of town, it is still a major concern in places like Red Deer. A derailment of hazardous materials anywhere along the rail line that runs parallel to Red Deer could easily result in a mass evacuation and, for that matter, could shut down one of the country’s busiest highways.

Look back to 2001 when a train laden with anhydrous ammonia did derail on the city’s edge, and a mass evacuation and one death occurred.

One only has to go last year’s terrible derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., to be reminded what can happen when things go wrong. There are numerous communities in Central Alberta, such as Penhold, Olds, Innisfail, Lacombe and so on, where trains travel through the heart of town.

A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway runaway train loaded with crude oil crashed into the small Quebec community, exploded and burned, killing 47 people and wiping out much of the downtown last July 6.

About three months later, on Oct. 19, a CN train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and exploded in Alberta, near the tiny community of Gainford. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

There is a growing concern among municipalities about the increase in rail traffic carrying more and more petroleum products, including crude oil.

Since Lac-Mégantic, there’s been much discussion about rail safety in Canada — and rightly so. And some measures have been taken, such as a move to more crash-resistant rail cars.

But the transportation of oil by rail tanker has increased dramatically, in part because of delays in building new pipelines.

In a recent article, Alberta Venture Magazine reported: “In 2013, Canadian Pacific Railway moved about 70,000 tanker-loads of crude oil, while Canadian National Railway hauled 60,000 ... just five years ago this increasingly cozy relationship between Canada’s railways and energy companies didn’t exist. In 2009, CP moved just 500 tanker loads of crude; CN didn’t move one. But last year, about 150,000 barrels per day (bpd) was shipped by rail in Canada, or about four per cent of Canada’s production.”

The federal government rules are changing so that municipalities will get more information when dangerous goods are passing through.

But the catch here is the aggregated information will be provided on a quarterly basis — sometime after the goods have gone through. Rail companies don’t want to provide current information on volume and product — they say it’s confidential business information, and they have security concerns.

The idea is that as municipalities get information on what has gone through their community, they can prepare better emergency response plans for the future. Much of the reaction has been that some information is better than no information.

But municipalities have to sign confidentiality agreements to get that information.

White Rock, B.C., Mayor Wayne Baldwin, for one, is pushing back against the rail industry by expressing concerns to the federal Transport Minister about the large increase in rail traffic — such as the 100-to-120-car trains carrying oil from the U.S. — in the community just south of Vancouver. Baldwin said it’s not acceptable for these volumes to be hauled through such a high-density area.

He also argues that the confidentiality agreements are simply a way for railways to reduce public scrutiny of their operations.

Soon the Transportation Safety Board will release its finding on rail safety measures being proposed by Transport Canada.

Just like the rail industry is expected to do, everyone else who lives in proximity to a rail line should be watching this release closely.

And a lot of people in Canada live close to rail tracks.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached by email at or by phone at 403-314-4332.

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