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Defective Rail Cars a Safety Concern for Communities

by on August 27, 2010

Here, as in many communities, the most active time for rail activity is after midnight.

It’s utterly amazing how freight that has sat at a silent standstill since the previous day in a residential area can only be moved in the dead of night.

If that isn’t enough to ruin another night’s sleep, a recently released report by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is enough to give anyone living by our railways nightmares for the duration of whatever interrupted rest they do manage to get.

The TSB warns that “tens of thousands” of defective railway tank cars, many transporting hazardous materials, remain in use by North American railways.

That certainly is not much of a reassuring thought, and one that crossed my mind in around 4:00am yesterday morning, with a tanker full of chemicals on the tracks being the first thing I saw when I looked out of the window. Chlorine or ammonia, I wondered, based on what I’d seen pass by before.

Whatever was left of any confidence I once had for our railway system (and yes, I once had plenty) got on board and left with that last train, after reading about the TSB’s findings.

The report cites a defective connecting piece known as a stub sill as the source for concern. It can be found on “approximately 41,000 cars within the North American tank car fleet…and approximately 35,000 of them are in dangerous goods service,” said the TSB’s acting rail director of investigations, Rob Johnston.

Chicago-based Union Tank Car Company, or UTLX, is identified as the manufacturer of the “problem” tank cars, with almost half of all cracked stub sills reported over a five year period originating from this company, along with all eight of the broken stub sills found in Canada.

The Transportation Safety Board’s report stemmed from an incident in Manitoba in 2009 when a CN railcar carrying over 23,000 kilograms of flammable liquid propylene separated from the rest of the train due to the faulty connecting piece, the stub sill.

The TSB notes that there are no requirements under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act “to record and report stub sill failures” which “may prevent other broken parts from being found before the next accident,” and called for a “concerted effort” to raise safety standards.

This all leads me back to the issue of confidence.

The defective railcars are noted to have been built between 1967 and 1989. There’s an awful lot that has happened in the railway industry since that time, and one of those things is the railway industry’s preoccupation with longer trains – a preoccupation quite possibly that shorted safety considerations, it seems.

The TSB report states that, since the mid 1990’s, trains have become substantially longer and heavier, from an average of about 1524 metres, and 6000 tonnes to some which are now more than 3657 metres long and weigh more than 10,000 tonnes.

A CN rail spokesman said that his company welcomed the Transportation Safety Board’s suggestions to bolster safety, which he called a “North American industry issue” that “is going to require the full cooperation of regulators, industry, and car-owners in Canada and the United States.”

Wow. Cooperation. CN learns a new word.

Apart from casting the net out wide to catch and reel in as many different people, companies, and industries as possible to deflect attention away from CN and the railway industry a whole, one nagging question lingers, one that cannot be quite so readily shuffled off down the line.

The question is: who checked?

Who checked at the railways when the (lucrative) decision was made to start running longer trains, to ensure that the older railcars still in service were built to a specification to accommodate this significant change, and in sound condition?

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Post-incident, CN again asserted that the core issue for the TSB’s report “isn’t specific to CN” but states that it has since conducted an internal review, which has led to new measures to “ensure issues are detected, reported, and either repaired or taken out of service.”

It took a near-disaster to come to this conclusion?

Citing the “big difference” in train length, the TSB states that “Trains and car design criteria must evolve over time and keep pace with operational demands or accidents may happen.”

Although it is very reassuring to hear this from the Transportation Safety Board, it is alarming and discouraging that the railway industry didn’t say it first, see it first, or do it first, without having to be told.

I guess they were too busy trying to connect together defective railcars rather than taking the time to connect the dots.

This issue speaks loudly as to the priorities of the rail industry. Safety in all in facets needs to be fully considered before going ahead and making major changes to rail operations on a wing and a prayer, while focused primarily on the bottom line all the while.

Railway employees deserve the safest possible work environment, and resident neighbours could use a little confidence in rail operations, especially given this report, and given the fact that many have expressed deep concern as to the handling of dangerous goods by the railway industry in their communities, prior to this report.

Isn’t it time to address those concerns, and instill a little confidence?

We’re waiting…

© Copyright 2010 RailandReason.com

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4 Comments
  1. We have a huge “vibration” problem from old locomotives that CPR uses to do brake tests/yard service trains/switchers .. ( instead of fixing their undergground air supply line that broke back in the first year of operation .. 1986 !) never warned us that they’d get this busy and there is absolutely no abatement. ( from 6 to 28 trains a day) Nuts ! we never get a brake !

    • trainjane permalink

      What is CP’s position regarding your concerns with their noise, vibration, and possibly maintenance problems?

      Have they responded to your complaint, and if so, how? Were all of your concerns put in writing and sent to them?

      I take it that this problem has been ongoing for some time.

      Also, have you brought this situation to the attention of your local elected officials; and if so, have they given you support in seeking resolution?

  2. Jeff Willsie permalink

    The first train arrived in St Thomas in 1881 long before Mr Bickelky moved in.
    If Mr Bickley does not like to live by the railway he should move. There is nothing going on on the railway that has not been happening for well over 125 years.
    As oil costs increase more , more freight will travel by rail.If it were not for rail there would be no Cami or Toyota plants in this are, bringing in millions of dollars of economic bennefit.If Mr Bickley does no like the whistle he can lobby for a whistle bylaw, as for vibration & noise he can move, the railway cannot.

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