Category Archives: High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFTs)

History lesson: five Canadian train disasters

Repost from The Winnepeg Free Press

Trending that caught Doug’s eye: Canadian rail disasters

By: Doug Speirs, 10/11/2014
Bill Sandford / The Canadian Press filesA derailment in Mississauga caused explosions and the release of chlorine gas. More than 250,000 people fled. At the time, it was North America�s largest-ever peacetime evacuation.
A derailment in Mississauga caused explosions and the release of chlorine gas. More than 250,000 people fled. At the time, it was North America�s largest-ever peacetime evacuation. CP – Bill Sandford / The Canadian Press files

As train derailments go, it was something to see.

Last Tuesday, a 100-car CN freight train carrying dangerous goods derailed in central Saskatchewan, sending plumes of thick black smoke billowing into the sky and forcing residents of a nearby hamlet to flee.

One day later, the residents of Clair, a small community of 50 people about one kilometre from the crash, and surrounding farms were allowed to return home.

CN says 26 cars jumped the track, including six containing hazardous materials, and the spectacular fireball erupted from two cars carrying petroleum products.

The publisher of the Wadena News said she’d never seen anything like it in her 13 years in the area. “I’ve seen derailments, but this is a pretty bad one,” Alison Squires told The Canadian Press. “You could see… this huge plume of black smoke.”

What Canadians may not realize is there are hundreds of train collisions, accidents and derailments every year on the nation’s railways. Like the latest incident, most don’t result in injury or death, but they can be alarming.

Last month, the mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., called on Ottawa to do more to ensure his town’s safety after the sixth derailment in about four months. Two trains go through the town each day, pulling 56,000 cars loaded with dangerous goods annually. Sadly, our history is rife with horrific train accidents, including this five-pack of disasters:

5) The date: Nov. 10, 1979
The disaster: The Mississauga Evacuation

The details: A derailment doesn’t have to be deadly to be devastating. Just before midnight on Remembrance Day 1979, a 106-car freight train packed with explosive and poisonous chemicals pulled out of the local marshalling yards when, thanks to an overheated bearing, a set of wheels fell off, sparking a derailment near the intersection of Dundas Street and Mavis Road. According to Heritage Mississauga’s website, one of the tanker cars was filled with 90 tonnes of chlorine, while 39 more cars carried butane, propane, toluene, styrene and other highly flammable materials. A witness later recalled seeing a red-hot set of wheels from the train cartwheel 50 feet through the air and crash in her backyard. Several cars filled with propane exploded, sending up a fireball that could be seen 100 kilometres away. Every available bit of firefighting equipment was sent to the blaze. With the possibility of a deadly cloud of chlorine gas spreading throughout suburban Mississauga, more than 250,000 residents were forced to flee in what was North America’s largest peacetime evacuation until hurricane Katrina walloped Louisiana in 2005. Recalled Mayor Hazel McCallion: “If this had happened a half-mile farther down the track — either east or west — we would have seen thousands of people wiped out. It’s a miracle it happened here.” Six days later, residents were allowed to return. Amazingly, no one was reported killed.

4) The date: March 12, 1857
The disaster: The Desjardins Canal Derailment

The details: Ten years before we formally became a country, a Great Western Railway passenger train met a grisly end when a broken axle caused it to jump the tracks and crash through the deck of a timber suspension bridge over the frozen canal outside Hamilton. Here’s a gripping historical account from the archives of the Hamilton Public Library: “The chasm, 60 feet deep, over which this bridge was erected, was made by cutting an outlet for the canal through Burlington Heights. At the time of the accident, the water was covered with ice about two feet thick… The engine and tender crushed at once through the ice. The baggage car, striking the corner of the tender in the act of falling, was thrown to one side and fell some 10 yards from the engine … As far as we can yet learn, everyone in the first car was killed; those who were not crushed being drowned by the water, which nearly filled the car.” A Hamilton railway worker later recalled seeing “the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second, there was no train to be seen.” Rescuers raced to the scene, but struggled to reach the wounded because snow coated the embankments leading down to the canal. The tragedy killed 59 of the 100 passengers on board and injured at least 18.

3) The date: Sept. 1, 1947
The disaster: The Dugald Rail Crash

The details: For Manitobans, Labour Day weekend in 1947 will forever be remembered as the date of the worst rail disaster in Western Canada’s history. According to a 2006 report by Free Press writer Bill Redekop, it was around 9:45 p.m. when the engineer of the Minaki Special, travelling at about 75 miles per hour, missed a signal to pull over and slammed into a transcontinental from Winnipeg, which was parked in Dugald waiting for the oncoming train to pull over onto a siding. As Redekop reported, the crash killed 31 people and injured 85, with two victims being decapitated and many others dying in an inferno that quickly spread to a nearby elevator full of wheat. The glow from the blaze could be seen from downtown Winnipeg, 24 kilometres away. The deaths and injuries were in the Minaki train, composed mainly of old wooden, gaslit passenger cars that burst into flames after toppling from the tracks. The special was carrying cottagers, who had just closed their cabins for the summer, and children returning from camps. With few ambulances available, heroic Dugald residents used signs, billboards and doors as stretchers, and a local farmer used his tractor to pull two cars away from the train so they wouldn’t catch fire. At the time, a Free Press night reporter, driving around monitoring his scanner, beat police to the horrific scene. In 2007, a marker was unveiled to commemorate the disaster.

2) The date: July 6, 2013
The disaster: The Lac-Mégantic nightmare

The details: Given its massive media exposure, this is likely Canada’s most famous rail disaster and the one with the most widespread impact, spurring tighter regulations for the transport of dangerous goods. In the early-morning hours, a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train carrying 7.7 million litres of a particularly combustible crude oil hurtled into the Quebec town, where it derailed and exploded, causing fires that killed 47 people and destroyed the town’s downtown core. The fires burned for days. The victims were mostly identified by DNA samples and dental records. The horror began when, just before midnight, the train was parked on a downward slope with one motor running to power the air brakes. When an engine fire erupted, forcing fire crews to shut down the engines, the air-brake system eventually failed. An insufficient number of hand brakes had been set by the engineer, and the train hit Lac-Mégantic travelling at 105 km/h. One Wednesday, a Quebec coroner released 47 reports — one for each person who died — with each stating: “This is a violent death. This death was preventable, or avoidable.” Three employees of the railway face 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death. The company also faces charges.

1) The date: June 29, 1864
The disaster: The St-Hilaire Horror

The details: It happened a few years before Confederation but remains Canada’s deadliest rail accident. A Grand Trunk train carrying between 354 and 475 passengers — many newly arrived German and Polish immigrants seeking a new life — was travelling from Quebec City to Montreal when, around 1:20 a.m., it approached a swing bridge over the Rivière Richelieu near modern-day Mont-St-Hilaire. The bridge had been opened to allow five barges and a steamer ship to pass, and a red light a mile ahead signalled for the train to slow down because the crossing was open. Tragically, for whatever reason, the conductor and the engineer failed to see the light. As a result, the engine and 11 coaches, with most of the passengers likely asleep, fell through the gap, one atop the other, crushing a passing barge and sinking into the river. An astonishing 99 people were believed killed and 100 injured in our worst rail disaster, including the conductor, though recently hired engineer William Burnie managed to escape with minor injuries. Online reports state he later claimed he was unfamiliar with the route and had not seen the signal.

As Canadians, we know our nation was forged with the might of giant locomotives, but we too often forget how quickly, and tragically, life can go off the rails.

Rocklin Deputy Fire Chief reports on oil train hazards

Repost from the Roseville & Granite Press Tribune

Oil train wrecks across nation put Rocklin on alert

South Placer train yards at center of Valero’s proposal
By Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor, October 8, 2014
The train tracks that run between Rocklin and Roseville will be filled with nonstop oil trains if Vallero Refinery’s plan is approved. | Ike Dodson – The Placer Herald

The U.S. and Canada have together experienced seven sizable accidents in the last two years involving oil shipped across rail lines — and Rocklin leaders have no intention of seeing their city become the eighth location on the list as Valero moves forward with plans to push thousands of tanker-cars filled with “black gold” through the region.

Not without a plan, at least.

Two months ago, the Valero Refinery plant in Benicia, some 81 miles from Rocklin, submitted an Environmental Impact Report to California regulators for its Crude by Rail Project. Valero’s plan would bring individual train cars full of crude oil from Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan converging on the Union Pacific rail yard in Roseville, where they would be assembled into 50-car trains and then sent on to Benicia. According to the EIR, Valero hopes to send two of these 50-car convoys plugging through the older sections of South Placer County every day.

Since the release of Valero’s EIR, Rocklin Deputy Fire Chief Richard Holmes has been examining potential dangers for the city. In a recent staff report submitted to council members, Holmes noted that, between 2013 and 2014, seven American and Canadian cities have been forced to respond to serious accident involving crude oil, ethanol or similar petrochemicals being shipped across rails.

“The hazard identification of crude oil is ‘immediately hazardous’ with a highly flammable distinction,” Holmes wrote. “There have been many major accidents involving crude oil in North America … these events demonstrate that accidents can happen.”

Holmes added that Rocklin’s risks are likely softened by the fact its train tracks run only a few miles from Roseville’s Union Pacific yard, thus forcing any oil tankers heading northwest to depart on their way from one city to the other at “relatively slow” rates of speed.

However, even that rare bright spot in Holmes’ report may be of limited consolation to Rocklin city council members. In February, an oil train that crashed in Lynchburg, Virginia, was traveling at only 24 miles per hour, according to its ownership company, CSX. In that case, seven oil cars spilled into the environment — with three plunging directly into the James River.

The Lynchburg oil train wreck is in addition to the seven larger recent disasters Holmes mentioned in his analysis.

Rocklin Fire Department’s immediate conclusions in the face of Valero’s plans involve identifying the community’s specific risks if an oil train accident occurs, and then gearing training and preparedness for those exact scenarios. One asset the fire department currently already has is a foam tender with over 1,000 gallons of Class B foam. If the Valero EIR passes, obtaining more backup resources may be a topic the city council considers.

Rocklin City Public Information Officer Karen Garner said the recent staff report to leadership is, for the moment, an overview.

“The presentation was just about presenting the facts and current status of a topic that’s received a lot of attention lately,” Garner said this week. “No request for additional equipment or resources is being made at this time.”

An inside look at rail industry views on proposed safety rules

Repost from Railway Age
[Editor: Check out rail industry insider perspectives on the DOT’s proposed new safety rules, and a few of their hoped-for changes before the rules become final.  – RS]

DOT crude oil NPRM: Will cooler heads prevail?

August 7, 2014, by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
A recent call-in forum on crude by rail conducted by Cowen and Company Managing Director and Railway Age Contributing Editor Jason H. Seidl “helped affirm our view that the final version of the DOT’s safety rules may include some changes to the ones proposed on July 23.”

“We believe that the final draft of the [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on High-Hazard Flammable Trains and DOT 111 tank cars] could be more friendly to shippers than the first proposal,” said Seidl. “This, along with the removed uncertainty, could put a more positive spin on regulations that are sure to add costs for the industry.”

Retrofitting tank cars to 9/16-inch-thick steel is “a tall order,” said Seidl. “A railcar manufacturing executive on our panel suggested that retrofitting existing 7/16-inch-steel cars to 9/16-inch layers would be a problematic task, as the technology for implementing the conversion may not be currently available. Additionally, such an undertaking may be restricted by tight steel supplies, which could disrupt and prolong production for months. This would exacerbate concerns about the two- to five-year proposed compliance period, which is already viewed as insufficient by many players in the industry. According to our panelist, a more realistic retrofitting of the existing 7/16-inch-steel car fleet would take five to seven years and consist of other improvements, such as top fittings and thermal jackets. If retrofitting to a 9/16-inch-steel layer is ultimately adopted in one or more of the paths to compliance, the Greenbrier Companies could benefit as it already applies this standard to its “Tank Car of the Future” group of tank cars. That being said, we believe that the final version of the rules will include some key changes to the ones proposed on July 23.”

The Cowen panelists agreed that reducing crude oil train dwell time would make more sense than reducing speed. “The consensus opinion seemed to be that enforcing broad speed restrictions may not be the right approach,” noted Seidl. “The panelists indicated that emphasis should be placed on reducing the total time that High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFTs) spend in populated areas, and slower trains do just the opposite. Additionally, reduced train speeds would require more cars and detrimentally impact the supply chain, potentially resulting in higher dwell times in populated areas. One panelist suggested that CBR regulators should communicate with the groups that have created regulations for other rail-transported hazardous materials, such as chlorine. Such regulations, which rely in large part on reducing dwell time in densely populated areas, appear to have been effective in improving transportation safety.”