Tougher rail safety rules sought

Municipalities are pushing the federal government for full disclosure of all dangerous goods moving by rail so they can be fully prepared to respond to a derailment or accident.

With memories still fresh of the horrific derailment in Lac-Megantic that killed 47 people as well as a couple of accidents involving dangerous goods since then, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has ramped up pressure for action on Transport Minister Lisa Raitt. Unless resolved before hand, the issue will come to a head at a transportation of dangerous goods advisory council conference that Transport Canada has organized for Nov. 21.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose city experienced two derailments involving dangerous goods this summer, says while local police and fire departments have to respond to these incidents, “we are still unable to get specific information quickly about what is on these trains in order to ensure the safety of our residents. This simply cannot continue.”

The Railway Association of Canada says its members “regularly share information on commodities handled, including dangerous goods, with responsible authorities such as municipal officials and first responders.” That way they “understand the movement of dangerous goods in their community and what is required in the event of transportation incidents.” In 2012, the RAC conducted more than 75 dangerous goods training sessions across and expects to hold twice as many this year. CN and CP also conduct them in communities along their lines.

Mike Lowenger, RAC’s vice-president of operations and regulatory affairs, says the railways and their shippers work to train fire and police departments “so they approach an accident site knowledgably.” Local officials are usually among the first to open when an accident has occurred.

The dangerous good training is provided through a program called Transcear, organized by the Chemical Industry Association of Canada, it doesn’t include all the dangerous goods moving by rail, says FCM. And the program is voluntary rather than required by law, it adds. Municipalities don’t need to know the contents of every freight train but should be aware of what dangerous goods they should be prepared for.

In meetings with her provincial counterparts and FCM representatives, Raitt has been careful to avoid specific commitments. “Railway and transportation of dangerous goods regulations exist to ensure the safety and protection of the public. Should anyone be found to have contravened any federal transportation regulations, Transport Canada will not hesitate to take immediate enforcement action.”

FCM said the minister did agree to work on three priority areas for rail safety identified by the Federation -- equipping municipal first responders to deal with rail emergencies, ensuring municipal concerns are addressed by government and the railways and preventing local governments from being stuck with the cost of cleaning up a derailment.

The minister “shares our view that the local first responders need to know what dangerous goods are going through their communities and need timely information from rail carriers in the event of an emergency,” notes FCM President Claude Dauphin.

Quebec Transportation Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said after the federal-provincial transport ministers meeting that the provinces want quick action from Ottawa on their demand for tougher rail safety regulations. “At a bare minimum, Ottawa should divulge exactly what trains are carrying. It’s absolutely incredible that municipalities don’t know what is passing through their territory.”

The federal government brought in new rail safety legislation a couple of years ago and there’s no consensus on what else it should do other than require the upgrading or replacement of the class of tank cars involved in the Lac-Megantic crash. Nothing is expected to happen on that front until after a meeting this fall of the Association of American Railroads tank car committee. It will study ways to strengthen tank cars so they don’t split open in a derailment.