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CN in Spotlight With Latest Oil and Propane Fire, Explosion, and Derailment

by on October 22, 2013




Photo of CN Derailment and Fire, Gainford, Alberta (Photo From Parkland County, Facebook)



The Safety of the Shipment of Oil Products by Rail Questioned – Again

Another derailment, another explosive fire, another evacuation – train disasters such as CN’s most recent at Gainford, Alberta will become the “new normal” warns Greenpeace, unless more stringent railway safety rules are set into place by Ottawa.

As recently as last week, the federal government highlighted new rail safety measures in the parliamentary throne speech. An invited special guest attended the proceedings: Colette Roy-Laroche, Mayor of Lac Megantic, the town that lost 47 citizens and had its downtown core obliterated by a rail catastrophe just over three months ago.

Ottawa vowed “targeted action” to increase the safety of the transportation of dangerous goods, as well as the insurance requirements of rail companies.

Just hours after Ottawa’s announcement, CN had what has been referred to as another “incident.”

Intense Media and Public Scrutiny

The timing of the latest derailment, along with intense media coverage, have placed the shipment of oil industry products by rail front and centre of the public eye.

For the rail industry, it couldn’t be any worse.

“All of us at CN are aware of how this has disrupted your lives,” said Jim Vena, CN’s chief operating officer.

With this latest accident and widespread public attention, the railway industry has defined itself in comparison to, rather than in association with, the pipeline industry, and created a public relations nightmare of its own construct.


The Railway’s Saving Grace

The location of the derailed nine cars carrying liquefied propane and four carrying crude oil, and subsequent explosion in a relatively sparsely populated area was the saving grace for the railway, but hardly for the 100 or so evacuated residents of the area.

En route from Edmonton to Vancouver, had this train derailed in similar fashion in either of these two cities, the consequences, once again, could have been of catastrophic proportions.


Public Concerned With Rail Transportation of Oil

Although reports of damage to private property were initially played down, the media images of melted exterior siding on the residence closest to the blaze, along with the owner’s account of acres of scorched fields, told another story.

These images have left an indelible mark on the memories of many Canadians who are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of rail operations in their own communities, the lack of transparency as to the exact nature of what toxic or hazardous substances are being transported through them, and what happens when things go very, very, wrong.

As recently as October 16th, the provincial governments of B.C. and Alberta confirmed that if pipelines are not built, then oil will flow west by rail.


Public Officials Voicing Concerns About Rail

However, B.C.’s Natural Gas Development Minister Rich Coleman, prior to the latest rail accident, stated that transporting oil by rail “makes him nervous.”  

Indeed, more and more elected officials are speaking out in favour of pipelines being a safer option than rail transportation in the shipment of oil products.


Pipelines Seen As Being Safer

 “Public opinion has always been that pipelines are the safest way to move fossil fuels,” Conservative MP Rob Merrifield said on Parliament Hill.

Before the latest derailment, the Fraser Institute cited a report that pipelines in North America are more than twice as safe as rail.

‘By operating more safely, the pipelines should be building social licence, when people look around at the disasters they are seeing in terms of derailments, the social licence for that should go up,” said Kenneth Green, senior director for the Centre for Natural Resources at the Fraser Institute.

Even British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who has raised concerns over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline because of safety, acknowledges the advantages of pipelines over trains.

“We see more spills and more environmental issues as a result of it, so I’ve always said that pipelines are safer than rail,” said Clark.


A Need For New Standards, Better Railway Infrastructure

Says Keith Stewart of Greenpeace:

“Three years ago, there was almost no oil being moved by rail. It’s been growing incredibly rapidly and it’s projected to keep growing that way and the safety standards in Canada simply have not kept up to the new ways to move new kinds of oil. I think what’s happened is we’re putting more and more oil on an infrastructure that is aging and wasn’t really designed for it in the first place and that’s increasing risks.”

Ben West, of Forest Ethics, said the latest derailment raises questions about the continued use of older oil train cars he referred to as being more to spilling upon derailment.


Railways: Not a Substitute for Pipelines!

West said the federal government is allowing the expansion transporting oil by rail as a substitute method to move more fuel at a time when major pipeline projects face major hurdles, such as complex approval processes and fierce opposition.

“To try to get around the pipeline process by pushing more rail through, especially with the implications of it, seems highly irresponsible to me and fundamentally undemocratic without the kind of oversight and public process we’ve had around the pipelines.”


The Current Reality of the Problems With Rail

Proponents of shipping oil by rail point to last year’s railway safety record…but that was then, and this is now. “You’re only as good as your last job, your last project, your last assignment,” a mentor once told me. Yesterday is history…the future is a mystery…it’s what is happening now that matters most.

On this basis, I believe the tide is now turning, and that 2013 will be a landmark year for the railway industry, one in which the unchecked, explosive growth of the shipment of oil by rail (pardon my choice of words) will be marked by increasing regulation and accountability to better protect public health and safety, and environmental concerns.

Public awareness is now focused squarely on the transportation of hazardous goods, including oil, by rail, and its consequences, which despite railway’s efforts, are currently ramping up in terms of frequency of occurrences as well as severity.

Michael Davies, the managing director of the Vancouver consulting firm “Reputations” sums up current public sentiment:

“(CN has) popped up onto the public radar because of Lac-Megantic and the other derailments over the past little while…and I think they’re going to run into the same ferocious opposition as pipelines are getting.”

Or maybe even more…


Sources for this article include:

“CN Rail vows to clean up derailment site, fix damage” Vancouver Sun, Oct. 21, 2013

“If pipelines not built, oil will flow west by rail” Vancouver Sun, Oct 16, 2013

“Alberta derailment adds fuel to pipeline debate” CBC News Online, Oct 21, 2013

Huffpost Alberta Online Edition, Oct 21-22 2013

  1. Canuck permalink

    You are right that CN’s saving grace was that the Gainford derailment was in a sparsely populated area. The news these days is all about rail safety but why are railways allowed to build next to heavily populated residential areas? If railways and residential areas have to co-exist and no one wants to another Lac Megantic to occur, then why isn’t the Canadian government looking into this question proactively?

    The victims of Lac Megantic will see some money next year

    Meanwhile, CN is seeing profits this year

    • trainjane permalink

      I agree with you but believe that there’s two sides to this issue. One side of the problem is when railways build or expand operations too close to residential areas, heavily populated or not. Equally a problem is when cities or municipalities approve new residential construction too close to rail interests. They’re both guilty in this regard.

      These are avoidable, preventable, proximity conflict issues; creation of these needless problems has to stop.

      These situations could be remedied by both the railways and the cities/municipalities formally adopting the Proximity Report jointly completed by the Railway Association of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities over half a decade ago that specifically addresses this very issue, in terms of new construction by either party, and provides detailed information such as setbacks and minimum building distances.

      It’s astounding that so much work went into such an important piece of joint co-operation between the two agencies that it has since received so little attention and recognition, and so little public discussion as to how to proceed and implement its recommendations. Railways and cities just seem to be carrying on as usual, as if one is expecting the other to blink first and take the first step to backing off from creating more proximity hotspots and conflicts.

      I have been watching one such area in the making for a few years now, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. A high-end, high-density development in an urban area was approved by the respective city, despite the railway expressing serious concerns about the city’s proposal, long before construction, as the the land right next to it was earmarked for a future rail line for its operations.

      This land, as I understand, had already belonged to the railway well before any notion of residential development was ever entertained, as was the plan of using it for a future rail line. Further, the railway’s plans to build their new line stood to greatly benefit the city by rerouting the majority of freight away from the congested city core, enhancing both safety, as well as reducing noise and vibration.

      On top of it all, the area approved by the city for residential development, directly next to the railway’s planned track construction, is right next door to the railway’s primary industrial freight client. The marketing of this residential-hell-in-the-making has been a slick, sugar-coated notion of an idyllic atmosphere and serene environment…until the rail line gets developed, I guess.

      So, on one hand, the railway plans a change that will benefit itself, its customers, and the city, but the city goes and creates a whole new proximity issue. Whenever the line finally gets constructed, and the first train rumbles through, the city will likely find itself in a very difficult position…in this case, the railway got it right, they made the right decisions for the right reasons, and made the
      right people in charge of the development approval process very aware of their specific concerns.

      Caught in the middle will be the people who moved in, and who are going to get a very rude surprise at some point about the real story about what they’ve actually purchased. This one’s going to be interesting…

      So, in the meantime, maybe it’s time for the Feds to wade into the proximity issue, and set some fixed limits or restrictions for development by either side, in the best interests of the health of Canadians and safe operations for the railway.

      After that, it’s time to formally address existing proximity conflicts, in terms of setting maximum allowable public limits to noise exposure, which may mean night time scheduling restrictions for railways in urban areas, just like some Canadian airports do. The status quo is very, very overdue for an overhaul…

  2. Canuck permalink

    Thanks for explaining both sides of this issue in plain English. Interesting that the Proximity Report was developed by both sides and that its use is voluntary yet not being followed consistently. How many derailments and tragedies have to happen before the federal government steps in and puts legislation in place to protect the people who get caught in the middle? Great article.

    • trainjane permalink

      Thanks for your compliment. As for legislation, it looks like Ottawa is in the process of reviewing various aspects of railway safety and liability. We’ll be watching to see what is put forward, it’s long overdue.

  3. Andrew permalink

    On a related note people in Megantic didn’t care before and they still don’t care! :$

    • trainjane permalink

      Did you send the wrong link? The one you sent is about an iconic Canadian hockey team staging an event to show support for the people of Lac Megantic. Or, were you expecting a pity party for the railway that destroyed part of the town, caused dozens of casualties, and then floored the public with how poorly they responded to the devastation left in their wake?

      • Andrew permalink

        What about Windsor Station in Montreal that was ruined by the Bell Centre? What about the Via Rail service from Windsor Station through Megantic to St.John NB that was cut by the government?

        Hockey is just bread and circuses to keep people ignorant! 😦

        • trainjane permalink

          As I recall, the hockey game held in Lac-Megantic after the disaster was in order to show support and lift the spirits of its residents dealing with a catastrophic situation.

          Lac-Megantic put rail safety in the forefront of public consciousness, across the country, and quite likely beyond.

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