Mayor wants to know when trains carry hazardous goods through his town

Repost from the Vancouver Sun

Mayor wants to know when trains carry hazardous goods through his town

By Glenda Luymes, September 21, 2017 8:04 PM PDT

The train tracks running through Vanderhoof helped build the community on the banks of the Nechako River. But some fear they could one day ruin it.

When local politicians meet for the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in Vancouver next week, they’ll consider a resolution drafted by the District of Vanderhoof calling on Transport Canada to order railways to provide “up-to-the-minute” information on hazardous goods being transported through their communities.

The information would enable first responders to safely address derailments and spills, explained Vanderhoof chief administrative officer Tom Clement.

“If we don’t know what trains are carrying, how can we respond?” he asked.

While Canadian railways are required to provide reports on what trains carry, they are usually produced several months after the fact, leaving municipalities to guess what might be rolling through town on any given day.

According to a report by Canadian National Railway (which operates the line through Vanderhoof), shipments of dangerous goods accounted for three per cent of the total CN shipments in B.C. in 2016. Liquefied petroleum gases, diesel fuel and sodium hydroxide made up more than half of all dangerous shipments.

Like many, Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen was shocked by the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. On July 6, 2013, a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil operated by the United States-based Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway derailed in the small Quebec town. Fire and several explosions killed 47 people.

But it was a smaller incident — a minor derailment near Vanderhoof several years ago — that first got the mayor thinking about the safety of his community.

“Someone from the Prince George press called our fire chief to ask about the accident. They wanted to know what the cars were carrying. We had no idea,” he said.

With a volunteer fire department made up of “local dads and moms,” Thiessen realized a significant incident could endanger first responders, as well as the community at large.

“CN is a large company. They should be able to tell us day-by-day what’s in a train as it leaves Prince George,” he said.

Thiessen said he was told CN’s closest dangerous goods officer was located in Edmonton, meaning “our volunteers would be the first on scene.”

A CN spokesperson referred Postmedia to the Railway Association of Canada.

A statement from the association said its members work with municipalities and the federal government to achieve a “workable process” to ensure information about dangerous goods traffic is available. A mobile app allows first responders to access information about railcar contents so “they can make informed decisions in the event of a rail emergency.”

Thiessen said the process requires first responders to obtain a code from the side of a damaged train car, which might put them at risk if the cars are leaking hazardous substances.

“We need a better process,” he said.

But while the mayor is concerned about safety, he also recognizes the vital role the railway plays in his community.

“I’m in Vanderhoof as a result of the railway,” he said.

Thiessen’s grandfather settled in the community west of Prince George in 1942 to take advantage of the opportunities the railway presented. Thirty years later, as a young man, Thiessen had a part-time job unloading the railcars that carried lumber out of town.

These days, there are more trains coming through Vanderhoof, he said, but fewer stop. There’s also fear that what they might be carrying could someday undo all the good the railway has done.

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