Question Period Live

Why small towns should be nervous about railways

The Transportation Safety Board's recounting of a wintertime derailment has the makings of a thriller that never quite came to be

The Transportation Safety Board’s recounting of a February derailment near Gogama, Ont., has the makings of a thriller that never quite came to be. An interim report into the fiery crash in the waning minutes of Valentine’s Day paints a chilling scene. At ten minutes to midnight, the train crew “felt a heavy tug” that triggered an emergency brake. They spotted a fire about 10 cars behind the two locomotives powering the train, detached the locomotives, and escaped injury. Twenty-nine of the train’s 100 tank cars derailed, twenty-one suffered fire damage, and they all carried Alberta crude. Nine-hundred feet of track lay in ruins.

The sheer immensity of the trains that lug crude across the continent is astounding. The CN train that fell over on Feb. 14 was over a mile long (6,089 feet), and it weighed in at 14,355 tons. Fires burned for six days after the derailment.

All of those details matter more than ever. On March 7, another CN train carrying crude derailed—this time, even closer to Gogama and reportedly 37 kilometres from the February accident. Mystery shrouds both incidents pending investigation, but the TSB hints at an enduring safety risk on Canada’s railways: even new safety standards aren’t enough to remove the risks associated with Class 111 tank cars that carry much of North America’s crude. The TSB’s interim report on the Feb. 14 crash assessed the derailed cars:

The TSB conducted a preliminary damage assessment of all derailed tank cars. All of the Class 111 tank cars were constructed in the last 3 years, and were compliant with the industry’s CPC-1232 standard. In comparison with the other general service “legacy” Class 111 tank cars, these cars have some enhancements which include half-head shields, improved top and bottom fitting protection, and normalized steel.

The cars may have complied with CPC 1232 standards, but the TSB’s “initial impressions” suggested that those cars, which derailed at 38 mph, “performed similarly to those involved in the Lac-Mégantic accident, which occurred at 65 mph.” All of this points to the safety board’s longstanding concern with Class 111 tank cars.

The TSB has been pointing out the vulnerability of Class 111 tank cars for years, and the Board has called for tougher standards for all Class 111 tank cars, not just new ones, to reduce the likelihood of product release during accidents. In Lac-Mégantic, investigators found that even at lower speeds, the unprotected Class 111 tank cars ruptured, releasing crude oil which fuelled the fire. Consequently, until a more robust tank car standard with enhanced protection is implemented for North America, the risk will remain.

Read that bold again: Tougher, not newer, otherwise risks remain.

Not surprisingly, NDP MP Carol Hughes, who represents a nearby northern Ontario riding, talked about rail safety during question period. Hughes wondered exactly how Transport Minister Lisa Raitt was working to keep Canadian trains on their tracks. Raitt responded that her government has “moved 5,000 cars out of the system” and “brought in new standards to be followed for tank cars.” She also mentioned her department’s work with American counterparts on “a new tank car standard to be utilized in the future.” Note that the transport minister attached no timeline to that new, continent-wide standard. Until then? Risks remain.

Usually, the opposition would fear-monger about a hypothetical future catastrophe that proper regulations could have prevented. But there’s no need anymore: a small town in Canada already suffered destruction at the hands of a runaway train loaded with flammable cars. The people of Gogama are nervous. They have good reason.

The context

Vegas bookies pegged low odds on Amnesty International supporting Stephen Harper’s latest anti-terror legislation. Just kidding: Nobody in Las Vegas, except maybe that drunken Canadian bachelor party that just woke up, even knows about Bill C-51. But everyone who knows Amnesty’s record wouldn’t be surprised at the organization’s criticism of Bill C-51—namely, that proposed changes “fail to meet a range of important international human rights obligations.”

Among those obligations, Amnesty says, is the government’s obligation to allow Charter of Rights-protected protest to continue unperturbed. The bill’s critics all point to one subsection of C-51 that could target such protest. The bold part is important:

Subject to any provision of any other Act of Parliament, or of any regulation made under such an Act, that prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information, a Government of Canada institution may, on its own initiative or on request, disclose information to the head of a recipient Government of Canada institution whose title is listed in Schedule 3, or their delegate, if the information is relevant to the recipient institution’s jurisdiction or responsibilities under an Act of Parliament or another lawful authority in respect of activities that undermine the security of Canada, including in respect of their detection, identification, analysis, prevention, investigation or disruption.

Amnesty’s assessment, which comes on the heels of an army of angry professors and B.C. Premier Christy Clark‘s own criticism, takes the view that not all unlawful activity is criminal.

“…any such activities that while not ‘lawful’, are certainly not criminal, would be susceptible to interference and disruption through these new powers. Demonstrating without an official permit or protesting despite a court order, activities that are commonly carried out by Indigenous communities, environmental groups, the labour movement and many others, could be targeted by the new CSIS powers, even though they are fully protected under the Charter of Rights and international law.”

The government will respond to those arguments with the same defensive talking points, ad nauseum, until the bill becomes the law of the land. That’s the surest bet of all.

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