Canada: get rid of the dangerous DOT-11A tank cars!

Repost from The Montreal Gazette

Opinion: Railways should just refuse to accept dangerous DOT-111A cars

By Jerry Dias, The Gazette February 23, 2014
Opinion: Railways should just refuse to accept dangerous DOT-111A carsDOT-111 tanker cars

When tragedy strikes, we are first overcome by emotion. In the case of Lac-Mégantic, the severity of the tragedy now requires us to take action so that such a catastrophe cannot occur again.

There has been no shortage of such discussions since the derailment last summer, when 47 people were killed and the heart of this small Quebec community was destroyed by the crash of rail cars carrying volatile fuel.

Much of that discussion has focused on the DOT-111A cars that were involved. These tank cars were made before more strict manufacturing standards were put in place. Cars made today must be safer, but companies are free to keep using the old DOT-111A cars, rather than replace them.

The result is that while we now have higher standards, the less-safe DOT-111A cars are still rolling through our communities filled with volatile fuels. And that has many worried that another tragedy is inevitable.

Speaking in Calgary last week to a crowd of business people, the chief executive of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. was blunt in his assessment of the situation, and suggested that the DOT-111A cars be banned.

“So what should we do with them? Stop them tomorrow. Don’t wait to study. We know the facts,” Hunter Harrison said. “You know what this comes down to? And I hate to tell you this: The almighty dollar. Who is going to pay for this?”

This is encouraging, but we need to see more. Some companies, including Irving Oil, are already moving to take the old DOT-111A cars out of use, but we need the big rail companies to act to really ensure the safe movement of oil through our towns and cities.

Speaking publicly about a getting rid of the DOT-111A is one thing — actually pursuing a ban on using such dangerous rail cars is quite another. Unifor is eager to work with Harrison and the rail companies to win a total and immediate elimination of the use of the DOT-111A cars.

Since Lac-Mégantic, the rail companies have imposed a $325-per-car surcharge on any oil company using DOT-111A cars. The idea is that the extra costs will serve as a deterrent to companies using the cars. I am not convinced. With a capacity on the cars of some 114,000 litres, the surcharge works out to just a fraction of a cent per litre. The surcharge, then, won’t be a deterrent. And with both big rail companies charging it, the surcharge will simply become part of the cost of doing business.

Unifor encourages Harrison to make a formal proposal to Lisa Raitt, the federal minister of transport, for an immediate moratorium on the use of DOT-111A cars. As Harrison says, don’t wait for a study. We know the facts.

Better still, Harrison should be telling the oil companies that his rail line will no longer put the safety of its workers and the communities through which it operates in danger, by hauling the DOT-111A and will from this point forward refuse to accept the cars.

The announcement by Irving last week that it will no longer use, as of April 1, old DOT-111A cars made before October 2011 shows that the rail companies need not wait for the Harper government to ban the cars. They can act now.

Jerry Dias is the national rail president for Unifor, Canada’s largest union in the private sector with 300,000 members, including 9,000 in the railway sector.