Six suggestions to improve rail safety

The public must be confident that rail transportation is safe, given that rail lines run through the heart of our communities.

It’s been just over a week since a horrific tragedy struck the quiet and peaceful town of Lac Megantic, Quebec and changed the lives of most of its residents.

An unmanned train, consisting of five locomotives and 72 tank cars filled with crude oil, ran 12 kilometres down a 1.2 per cent grade and then derailed in the midst of town. It happened at 1 a.m. on Saturday, July 6. Within minutes, there was a massive fireball and 40 buildings and as many as 50 people were gone.

The news coverage of this has been intense, and with good reason. As bad as the Alberta flooding was, and as important as events in Egypt are for the wellbeing of the middle east, this catastrophe struck at the heart of our country. Transportation, oil, railways and communities are all part of the package. There are few places in Canada where all four of these do not intersect.

In some remote communities, and in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, there are no railways. But all communities rely on fuel, with petroleum products the most important one. And all communities require transportation to deliver fuel — and in most cases, to power the transportation.

I’ve had a longstanding interest in transportation and in my working past, worked closely with railroad employees for several years. While I’m not an expert, I’d like to make six suggestions about what I believe must change as a result of this tragedy.

First, railroads must closely and rigorously follow safety procedures. That includes having at least two crew members aboard moving trains. Trains that are sitting in sidings for extended periods must have brakes properly applied — both air brakes and hand brakes.

Second, any train that contains explosive and/or hazardous goods must not remain unattended for more than a few minutes. If it is sitting for hours, waiting for a crew change or delayed due to disruptions on the line ahead of it, there must be someone from the rail company aboard — in the cab. That person must know how to apply brakes.

Third, no train should be parked on the crest of a hill without devices such as a derailer on the track directly in front of it. Had this train derailed as soon as the brakes failed, there would have been minimal damage and almost certainly no oil spills, let alone an explosion.

Fourth, residents of local communities and municipal officials must know the entire range of goods transported on trains through their communities. Railroads must stop being so secretive about what they are carrying. They operate through our communities because they’ve been here for a long time, and they generally do a good job. They must not forget the importance of goodwill. Communities deserve both trust and open communication.

By the way, crude oil in a tank car will have a placard with the number 1267 on each car. All dangerous goods, whether in trucks or rail cars, must be placarded.

On Thursday evening, while cycling near Fort Langley, I noticed a CN train which was hauling at least 30 cars of crude oil.

The placards for two other well-known commodities, both of which are highly explosive, are 1203 for gasoline and 1075 for propane.

Fifth, the federal government needs to look closely into what type of tank cars are transporting crude oil, and other dangerous goods. The DOT-111 or CTC-111A type car is not sufficient.

Sixth, the federal government needs to make money available to relocate some rail lines away from the centre of communities — particularly in the case of lines that are hauling large amounts of dangerous goods. Alternatively, the government must ensure there are funds available for track and signal upgrades, so that the tracks are as safe as possible. Government inspectors must do regular checks of track conditions.

In Langley, dangerous goods are transported through Langley City and Fort Langley by rail every day — indeed, almost every hour. Firefighters say they are ready for a major spill or accident — but are other members of the community ready? As seen in Lac Megantic, nothing could have prepared people there for what happened.

Rail transportation is a safe and efficient way to move goods. It is the “greenest” of all major modes of transportation, other than pipelines, and pipelines can only move certain types of goods.

A healthy rail sector is good for the Canadian economy, but people in communities bisected by rail lines deserve to know that trains on those lines are being operated with the maximum of safe procedures.

Safety first doesn’t just apply to working railroaders. It applies to all of us who come into contact with trains on a regular basis. In Langley, given the volume of trains in busy areas, that’s virtually the entire community.

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