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Risky rails?

February 15th, 2015 · No Comments

Lac-Mégantic derailment loom­­s large at community meeting on rail safety

By Madeline Smith

Nearly two hundred people gathered at the Church of the Messiah in the Annex in late November to voice their concerns about rail safety. Three Liberal members of parliament, Adam Vaughan, Chrystia Freeland, and Carolyn Bennett attended, along with Transport Action Ontario president Peter Miasek and Transport Action Canada board member Howard Levine.

It was a chilly night, but the room was packed to standing room only.

“The headcount here is an important message for us to take back to Ottawa,” St. Paul’s MP Bennett said.

In Toronto, the CP rail line runs along Dupont Street, which includes the northern edge of the Annex. The CN line runs along the city’s northern edge, parallel to Highway 407.

After a derailment led to a major disaster that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, many people who live along the rail lines in Toronto are concerned about their own safety. Complaints have been raised about DOT-111 railcars, an older model that CN and CP have said they will phase out over four years in favour of a more robust container. All the railcars that derailed in Lac-Mégantic were DOT-111s.

Meanwhile, transportation of volatile materials such as crude oil by rail has been on the rise. According to local action group Safe Rail Communities, an estimated 140,000 railcars carried hazardous materials across Canada in 2014, up from just 500 in 2009.

“[Rail] infrastructure is about to be subject to a lot more strain,” Vaughan said. “We need to get ahead of this train, so to speak.”

Vaughan, who became the MP for Trinity-Spadina in a summer by-election in 2014 after serving as Toronto’s Ward 20 councillor, is now in a position to tackle rail safety concerns. Although rail lines run through cities such as Toronto and affect residents on a local level, the system is regulated by the federal government, not municipalities.

“We need to figure out how to manage the movement of volatile goods in this country,” Vaughan said.

The horrifying impact of the derailment in Lac-Mégantic was on many residents’ minds at the meeting, but Miasek reminded the audience that derailments aren’t uncommon, underlining the need for investment in rail infrastructure.

“People forget that [Lac-Mégantic] was only one of many accidents,” Miasek said in an interview. CN derailments in Alberta and New Brunswick, among others, were also problems in 2014.

Miasek favours a public-private partnership, or P3, to invest in rail transport. The main issue with rail safety in Canada, he said, is the system’s lack of capital. Both CP and CN have been privately owned since CN was privatized in 1995, and Miasek said they are unable to invest in maintenance.

“We need to take a page out of the U.S. model, where government contributes money to the building of rail infrastructure,” he said. “They were at the place where we are about 20 years ago. Their solution was to put more government funding into rail, both federally and at the state level.”

Miasek said taking volatile materials off rail lines entirely is not a solution—while crude oil might be transported instead through pipelines, hazardous material like ammonia, chlorine, and acid is still moved by train, which he said is safer than transportation by truck.

In spring 2014, Helen Vassilakos and Patricia Lai started Safe Rail Communities as a way to raise awareness about what they say are inadequate safety standards for rail transport in Canada.

Since then, both have spent significant time researching the issue out of concern for their Runnymede-area neighbourhood, where some people have trains running right by their backyards.

“We’re arguing that the regulations aren’t enough,” Vassilakos said. “I think our government needs to take on more of a role. Every rail line should have the same requirements and it should be government that decides how things are done, not the rail lines.”

Toronto mayor John Tory and Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie, both elected in October 2014, recently voiced their support for trains with dangerous goods to be rerouted instead of passing through their cities. But that, Lai and Vassilakos argue, doesn’t adequately address the problem.

“To advocate for rerouting without having the safeguards put in place is not solving the problem,” Vassilakos said. “We’re concerned that if things get rerouted and it’s just forgotten, this could be a wasted opportunity.”

Vassilakos and Lai said it has been frustrating to bring public attention to rail safety, but said that the November meeting was encouraging. They hope their concerns, and the worries many other residents raised at the forum, mark a step towards better accountability and transparency for rail safety in Canada.

“We would like to have a voice,” Lai said. “We’re questioning the commitment to true safety.”

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