Friday, 10 January 2014

Volumes of rail shipped crude oil are increasing. How can safety be assured when railways often pass through downtowns? Answer: They can't.

Lac-Megantic Quebec: The mother of all railway derailment fires.

Railways passing through urban areas routinely carry noxious hazardous flammable goods each day. Can the rail infrastructure and rolling stock be properly maintained for these increased volumes? Are the trains properly manned to ensure safety?

by Tom Thorne

When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) connected Canada and its vast territory in the late 19th Century they didn’t carry hazardous goods of much consequence. Perhaps the worst thing they transported was wagon axel grease, coal oil and barrels of tar.

Now trains regularly carry noxious crude oil, naphtha and a host of other industrial chemicals most of which can ignite in a derailment to cause large fires and ecological damage. The trouble is they carry these hazardous products through many urban areas that have expanded since the railway was originally built.

In the case of my town, Belleville, Ontario, Canada, the CPR still follows a course from when this railway offered a now defunct passenger service. In the early days it also served some factories downtown. We now have an industrial park on the top of the city that is served by the Canadian National Railway and has access to the major Highway 401 that spans the Province. However the CPR railway still dips down to roll right through the centre of town paralleling the Bay of Quinte where we draw our drinking water.

In addition, on its way down through town it is less than 100 meters at most from the back of our General Hospital. If we had a fire the size of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near our hospital it would be rendered unusable and all the patients would have to be removed and housed elsewhere unless they were consumed by the flames. Also we would have no hospital medical service for the duration of such a disaster should it occur. 

My house in the west end of Belleville and is about 300 meters from the CPR track.That’s close enough that if we had a Lac-Megantic size fire for me to abandon my home for safety after helping hopefully to pull patients out of the long term care home at my corner. They are 150 meters from the CPR track.

Fortunately I could retreat to one of the three homes of my daughters. I have an acquaintance whose old wooden house downtown is 30 meters from the CPR track. The tracks at his location heave and sway each time a freight train goes through the city. Our downtown could be on fire very easily and our waterways polluted into the bargain because of the bridge that crosses the Moira River at that point.

A few years ago we had a derailment just east of Belleville that took a week to correct. Some of the oil leached into the ground but fortunately did not ignite. During that period the CPR routed its goods traffic through town using the Canadian National Railways (CNR) lines which also run through town but more safely through a larger rail yard. A derailment at this site would be more manageable but it also runs through town to the west and east with double track after leaving the rail yard.

Then this week we had another fiery derailment in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick and a few weeks ago we had another one at Casselton, North Dakota which also burst into flame and forced the evacuation of 2300 people.  Earlier on a stretch of track 86 km from Edmonton, Alberta 100 people were evacuated after a CNR derailment.

It is surely not rocket science to figure out that more and more flammable products are being shipped by rail to keep up with the demand mostly for oil that comes from the Canadian and the American west. The problem is our rail infrastructure and the nature of the rail car designs are prone to accidents of catastrophic proportions as the fiery death of 47 people shows in Lac-Megantic.

Canadian winters play havoc with our aging rail systems. The extreme cold this winter can affect the performance of the rail cars, switches and tracks.  As we have seen with the spate of accidents last year and the beginning of 2014, the system is clearly not safe enough. No amount of clever public and media relations or nice words from railway executives and government politicians can make this problem go away.

Since last May we have had ten serious derailments in Canada that are documented. Many other small problems go unreported especially by media. Every CPR goods train that passes through my town each day carries the potential for devastation. Some believe that the solution lies in pipelines. Pipelines in our area are aging like our rail system and the one that passes north of Belleville crossing watersheds. They are  destined for more volume to send crude oil to Montreal for refining. 

And can we expect that the Obama government is going to allow Canadian pipelines to enter the US in the near future? The answer is that the Congressional agenda in the United States has placed these pipelines from Canada on the political back burner. The Harper government wants to send our Alberta crude through pipelines to the BC coast and to Montreal. However in the meantime it will roll past our doors in increasing numbers of trains over track that needs attention and in cars that are single hulled and prone to ripping open in a derailment.

Each time I hear the train horns passing through my town I say a prayer first to remember the dead of Lac-Megantic and secondly to preserve us from a catastrophe at the end of my street.

© 2014 Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.

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