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Shipping Alberta’s Tar Sand Crude by Rail a Raw Deal for Communities and the Environment

by on October 16, 2012

As the controversy continues to heat up in western Canada over Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline from Alberta’s Tar Sands to British Columbia’s west coast ports, Canada’s railway industry has already weighed in.

Although much of the debate about the Northern Gateway Project is currently centred around the environmental risk posed by the construction of a pipeline through B.C’s pristine wilderness, followed by the use of massive oil tankers off of B.C.’s magnificent coastline to overseas markets, there’s a third possibility that looms ominously in the background, cloaked in its own fumes.

Canada’s two major railways, CN Rail and CP Rail, are eager to wade into the Tar Sands action and capture as much – if not all – of it for themselves, either  by replacing the proposed  pipeline  altogether, or hauling as much as possible despite it.


“Pipeline on Rails”

The idea of a “pipeline on rails” has been pursued by both CN and CP in recent years, notes Nathan Vanderklippe, of The Globe and Mail C.P’s vice-president of marketing and sales in agri-business and merchandise, Stephen Whitney commented that “We think that oil moving within North America is a key opportunity…The key thing for rail in our mind is you already have a network and the infrastructure in place.

That may come as news to many of the resident stakeholders who stand to be impacted if rail gets its way, many of whom are already struggling to cope with the railway’s existing noise levels, let alone an increase.

In an earlier Financial Post article, Diane Francis wroteCN could gear up its capacity to ship by rail up to four million barrels a day of oil at less cost and more quickly, bypassing the need to finance huge pipelines.”

Using the “Pipeline on Rail” strategy, CN would be able to “move oil-sands production quickly and cheaply to markets in North America or Asia.”

Jim Foote, CN’s executive vice-president of sales and marketing, offered his thoughts in the same Financial Post column saying thatThat’s the beauty of having the rail system. It’s scaleable, can go in any direction they want to go – to the west coast ports of Prince Rupert, Kitimat or Vancouver, or down to the Gulf coast – where the capacity is already in place and where they are used to refining heavy crude.”

The Financial Post article, referenced on the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference website, concludes:“CN estimates it could ship and have the capacity to handle 2.6 million barrels a day of oil products to the West Coast if 20,000 railcars were added to its fleet.”


Coming to a Railway Near You…20,000 Additional Railcars

Now, here’s a thought for Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Kitimat, and all points in between, twenty thousand more railcars. How will this affect the communities along the routes that the railways might potentially use?

The Vancouver Sun reported that locally, “CN Rail has been scoping out the possibility of hauling tanker cars to  the West Coast’s Pacific ports.” CN has, so far been shipping sticky raw oil – pure bitumen – from Fort McMurray in Alberta to markets in the U.S.” In the Vancouver Sun article, CN’s Kelli Svendsen added that although CN hasn’t shipped any bitumen to the West Coast, “although we are in discussion with customers who are interested in the concept.”

No mention was made, however, of any planned discussion with resident stakeholders who stand to be impacted by proposal.


Socially Unsustainable

One of the rail industry’s main selling points for the “pipeline on rails” idea is that it’s the cheaper option. We disagree.

In our opinion, the current scheme being touted by the railways comes at a potentially devastating cost to affected communities along designated routes, through populated areas, rendering it socially unsustainable.

In more rural areas, the impact on the environment, including wildlife, has yet to be factored in. The threat of charges for trespassing does little to deter wild species of game from wandering onto the tracks to their maiming or slaughter, an ongoing problem in both of Canada’s two westernmost provinces, where carnage on the tracks remains a disturbing problem.


More Noise, More Vibration

While the railways might try to resemble pipelines, they’ll never sound like them.

In the comparison of costs between rail and pipelines, the necessity of carrying out noise studies that an increase in rail traffic would create along affected routes followed up by measures to mitigate the impact, are a critical consideration, and key differences in assessing differences between rail and pipelines.

Any consideration of rail to transport Alberta’s crude must include a comprehensive plan to address the serious noise and vibration problems that clearly distinguishes– and levels the playing field – between the railway industry and pipeline interests.


More Whistling, More Fumes, More Waiting

For many beleaguered citizens, the prospect of an increase in the railway’s use of 90 decibel (or louder) whistles, especially at night, is unfathomable, but nonetheless, a very real auditory threat if rail transports Alberta’s crude.

Whistle cessation is often a very complex and expensive proposition for communities seeking relief from the railway’s invasive warning systems.

Longer, more frequent trains have the potential to negatively affect air quality adding more diesel emissions, and more trains means more delays for vehicular traffic stopped at crossings occupied by rail for increasing durations of time.

These are critical distinctions that the railways are seemingly ignoring.


Railways are Not Pipelines!

What the “pipeline on rails” scheme completely fails to address is the social costs associated with increased rail activity through communities who are already struggling to cope.

Moving Tars Sands oil to the West Coast is only cheap to those who ignore the real impact of this scheme on an unsuspecting public.

It’s completely incomprehensible that the railways are once again considering major changes to their operations and offloading the impact of those changes onto the backs of its residential neighbours.

It’s hard to have confidence in an industry that fails to give publicly-stated consideration to affected communities as part of any rail expansion proposal of this magnitude.

It’s time for big rail to stop salivating at the prospect of how big a piece of the sticky, gooey, Tar Sands pie it can help itself to, but to clean up the mess it already has on its plate in front of it, in the communities that already have outstanding concerns with rail operations.

Strategies for growth in rail traffic must include consideration of mitigating the impact of the subsequent increase in noise and vibration in affected residential areas, as well as addressing air quality issues in and around rail operations.

Until it does, it will find that it its resident stakeholders have little appetite for the railway’s proposed increases, and are wary of the railway’s presumption that they are simply gluttons for more punishment.

It will take a lot more than just adding thousands and thousands of extra rail cars to carry Alberta’s crude. Until the railways acknowledge and address the social and environmental implications of this proposal, the “pipeline on rails” scheme is just as crude and unrefined as the product they hope to ship.

  1. Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi Trainjane

    Once again you forget that folks living in the back yard of the railway have done so of their own free will. Railways traffic depends on what customers want to ship by rail.If you chose to live by the railway YOU chose to live with the ups & downs of traffic levels.
    If the grain farmers have a bumper crop of grain resulting in 5000 more cars of grain do you realy think there is going to be a vote by the municipalities to see if they are going to allow those extra grain cars through their municipality.I do not think so!
    If you do not like living next to the railway you should move.
    Jeff Willsie
    President Ontario Southland Railway

    • trainjane permalink

      Hello Mr. Willsie,

      If there’s any “forgetting” going on, perhaps it’s in your corner. Rail companies have an obligation
      to make only as much noise “as reasonable,” according to The Canada Transportation Act.

      As cities and major urban areas increase in population density, and as land become more valuable
      and costly, it seems that more folks will be moving in, rather than moving out of areas that have
      railways as neighbours.

      Wouldn’t the most reasonable –and progressive- course of action for a railway to take is to simply be
      the best neighbour that it can possibly be, and set an example?

    • checkmate permalink

      Dear Mr. Willsie;

      Although you may not be associated with CN, our letter is addressed to you because of your conviction of “what came first”. It’s likely that hauling atom bombs on rail through boroughs wouldn’t be a concern you as long as you get paid.

      When we moved into Thorhild, Alberta in 2009, there were 2 trains per daylight hours as they hauled grain and wood by our home 200′ away. And they were a bit of a novelty to see. We didn’t mind.

      Two years later, CN upgraded their rails from 80# to 100# for reasons unknown to anyone in our County at the time.

      Then, in mid 2012 we discover that 2 oil companies at Ft. McMurray have signed 5 year agreements to haul “dilbit” and other petro-products by rail to the Gulf of Mexico. And back hauls will consist of condensate. Oh joy! Oh joy!

      Each company has ordered 500 new cars each and expect more. Loads will also consist of diluent, molten sulphur, caustic soda, acids and whatever else, on other cars. But I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know, of course…at least, I think you know.

      As seniors, we were to spend our last years in a small, quiet, safe community. Now it’s noise, vibration, sleep deprivation, and nightmares. Our home has been devalued by $100,000 in 3 years.

      Having worked in the oil industry, I know that the transport of Large Quantities of oil products belongs to the pipeline industry ONLY. Rail has it place…but not with Oil!

      We want out! Would you be the one to buy us out Mr. Willsie? Please say yes. We would Love You Forever.

      • trainjane permalink

        Thanks for taking the time to comment. The situation that you find yourself in is regrettably one being repeated over and over again.

        Rail profits can come at a terrible cost – to those who least should be forced to pay it.

        Such a significant increase in rail traffic should be accompanied by a plan to mitigate the impact on those affected.

        We question the costs associated with the growth of the rail industry to society – through reduced productivity from sleep-deprived people trying to function at work, to such things as an unforseen change in rail operations leading to a sizable drop in the value of real estate as you described.

        It’s overdue to review the privileges that this industry has enjoyed since the beginning of Canada and update them into a more modern context. That’s healthier for the railways, for society, and for the economy.

  2. Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi Trainjane
    I realy do not think the 99% of the folks not bothered by the very nature of the railway or corporations using the railway would want rates to rise so as to improve the propety values & the living conditions of those who of their own free will move into the backyard of the railway.
    To solve your problem you should move!
    I was told tank cars today are built to survive a 60 mph train impact. I do not think a pipeline could survive this type of impact. Trains are obviously safer than pipelines. You should support oil on rail as it is safer.
    Have a great day
    Jeff Willsie
    President Ontario Southland Railway

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