Rail safety not improved, expert says

Repost from Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Rail safety not improved, expert says

 By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix January 22, 2014 8:00 PM
Rail safety not improved, expert says
Derailed CN rail cars are seen near Gainford Alberta in this undated handout photo provided by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Photograph by: HO , THE CANADIAN PRESS

First responders in Saskatoon now have access to more information about the dangerous goods coming through the city, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people living here are any more or less safe, according to one expert.

At the request of the federal government, and with the blessing of a host of Canadian mayors, Canada’s two Class 1 rail companies — Canadian Pacific and Canadian National — are now required to provide municipalities with quarterly updates about the nature and volume of dangerous goods transported through their areas.

But that information only arrives after the rail cars carrying the goods have already passed through the city.

“Is it really going to change anything? No. Is it going to make people more paranoid? Probably, yeah,” said James Nolan, a University of Saskatchewan professor who studies rail transportation.

The data about what is being shipped will not be made public and will only be in the hands of first responders. Still, Nolan says it’s not going to change anything or stop rail companies from transporting dangerous chemicals or crude oil through the city.

“They are going to say, ‘We are moving all these dangerous chemicals through Saskatoon.’ Well, sure. But they have been doing that flawlessly for the past ten years,” Nolan said.

Mayor Don Atchison has been part of a chorus of municipal leaders across the country lobbying the federal government to strengthen railway regulation in the wake of the July 6 train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. He’s a member of the Federation of Canadian of Municipalities’ (FCM) rail safety committee, which met with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt Wednesday.

“We are dealing with the most pressing issue, and that is knowing what the goods are that are moving through the city,” Atchison said in an interview from Ottawa after the meeting.

Like always, first responders will have access to rail manifests in the event of a major derailment, he said. Now, however, they will also know in advance when something unusual is passing through. The two major railway companies still have no plans to move their lines out of the city, he said.

Nolan said the massive increase in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail nationwide means derailments are more likely to result in oil spills. And after the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, the public is more conscious of rail safety.

“The railways are no less safe they were two years ago. They are just moving way more oil,” he said.

Shipments of crude by rail in Canada surged last year to 140,000 carloads, or about 260,000 barrels a day, from about 500 carloads in 2009, according to the Railway Association of Canada. There is no specific data on how much oil is being shipped by rail in Saskatchewan.