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Inaction frustrates residents

May 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Government urged to act now to reduce the risk of a rail catastrophe

By Arthur White

About 200 people attending an April town hall on rail safety learned that little has changed since they last met in November.

“I was asked to tell you what progress we’ve made,” said Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), flanked by Liberal MPs Chrystia Freeland (Toronto Centre), Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina), and Carolyn Bennet (St. Paul’s). “Very little to none.”

Afraid that an oil train derailment could turn their neighbourhood into another Lac-Mégantic, the residents who crowded into the Church of the Messiah on Avenue Road blasted the government for what they see as dangerous inaction. Proving the point, Matlow went over the unanswered slew of motions, letters, and meetings city council has used to try and press Lisa Raitt, the Minister of Transport, to take further action.

“We have been contacting her quite often and have actually received no response,” reported Patricia Lai, a co-founder of Safe Rail Communities, an advocacy group from the Junction dedicated to tackling the crude oil threat. She has also been trying to reach Raitt with petitions and letters, but has come up against a wall of indifference.

“One thousand people could just go [to an unprotected rail crossing] and refuse to move,” proposed Peter von Bitter at an April town hall on rail safety. He was one of many residents at the meeting frustrated with the federal government’s lack of progress on rail safety. Photo: Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

“One thousand people could just go [to an unprotected rail crossing] and refuse to move,” proposed Peter von Bitter at an April town hall on rail safety. He was one of many residents at the meeting frustrated with the federal government’s lack of progress on rail safety. Photo: Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News

Every day, hundreds of tank cars rattle by the church, which sits right next to the Canadian Pacific Railway Limited (CP) line along Dupont Street. Many carry tens of thousands of litres of volatile crude oil. Almost two years ago, 72 of those cars passed by here on their way to Lac-Mégantic, Que., where they derailed and exploded, killing 47.

“That could have been us,” said Lai.

In April 2014, Transport Canada announced tougher standards in response to the fatal derailment in Lac-Mégantic and moved to take 5,000 of the most dangerous DOT-111 tank cars off the rails. The remaining cars, which the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has repeatedly called “inadequate for the safe transport of dangerous goods”, will have to be retrofitted by 2017. For Matlow, that isn’t nearly fast enough.

“Minister Raitt has made various piecemeal announcements that respond to perhaps the most dangerous cars,” said Matlow. “But the many, many hundreds throughout the country that are not the most dangerous, but still extremely dangerous, are still going through our neighbourhoods every single day and night.”

Since the last town hall in November, three rail accidents have struck Ontario, all near Gogama, south of Timmins. Bennett and Vaughan both said the derailments reveal the inadequacy of the standards Raitt announced last year. The cars met the new regulations, but still leaked and caught fire, in one case polluting nearby waterways.

“We were already concerned that the changes to the DOT-111 cars were not sufficient,” said Bennett. “Now it’s proven.”

This March the Ministry responded with new standards that require full head shields, thicker steel, and thermal jackets on all cars, measures the TSB has been recommending for decades. But the changes leave 10 years for the industry to catch up, allowing dangerous cars to plow through Toronto until 2025.

Many at the town hall were unhappy with this timeline, with one person pointing out that defective consumer products are immediately recalled whenever they present the slightest safety risk. Contacted after the meeting for comment, Raitt’s press secretary, Zack Segal, said that there is a “balance to be struck”, and the deadlines in place are “aggressive”. But industry can’t replace a tank car fleet numbering well over 200,000 from one day to the next, especially when many are based in the United States, which has laid out an even slower timeline.

“We must increase the safety of rail cars as soon as possible,” he said, “but we must also provide tank car owners with enough time to comply with the new requirements.”

Infrastructure was another major issue at the town hall, especially given that TSB reports reveal a possible link between weak rail lines and the Gogama crashes. Vaughan brought the problem home to Toronto, warning about the risk posed by the dozens of level crossings along the city’s rail corridor. The Conservatives have committed only $10 million to improve them, he told the audience, a sum that “doesn’t even cover the environmental assessment”.

Vaughan was stark about what an accident would do to the Annex.

A relatively new rail tank car, part of a train that stretched as far as the eye could see, was parked on the CP rail line just north of Loblaws at Christie and Dupont streets on April 29. It appeared the entire train was carrying the same cargo, Flammable Liquids, as denoted by the red symbol defined as such by Transport Canada’s website. Photo: Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

A relatively new rail tank car, part of a train that stretched as far as the eye could see, was parked on the CP rail line just north of Loblaws at Christie and Dupont streets on April 29. It appeared the entire train was carrying the same cargo, Flammable Liquids, as denoted by the red symbol defined as such by Transport Canada’s website. Photo: Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

“If those cars crash they blow up; an explosion in a dense urban area is not going to be anything other than an extraordinary, horrific tragedy.”

Segal took issue with Vaughan’s charges, responding that the $10 million improvement fund is only one part of the ministry’s plan to address safety at level crossings. He added that Transport Canada has also imposed regulations that provide crossing safety standards and clarify the respective responsibilities of rail and road authorities.

Those regulations will still do nothing to upgrade level crossings to overpasses, however, a measure Vaughan views as a priority.

Lai’s most scathing criticism focused on what she sees as a lack of government oversight, a problem both she and Freeland blamed on the Conservatives’ push for industry self-regulation.

“Right now railways are responsible for creating their own audit system and auditing themselves,” explained Lai. “The federal government just sort of says, ‘Oh, you have an auditing system, check. Oh, you’ve done an audit, check. You’re done, we’re good.’”

In response, Segal said that industry self-audits do not replace regulations, rules or standards, and that Transport Canada expects rail companies to take “necessary corrective action” if its audits detect a significant deficiency. He further emphasized that Transport Canada conducts approximately 30,000 inspections and audits per year and that there have been no cuts to inspections, to the department’s core operating budget, or to “front-line safety and security”. Still, those policies did not succeed in finding the track problems that triggered the Gogama crashes, or in preventing the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

After tearing apart the government, the town hall opened up to audience questions, and the talk turned to solutions.

Lai said methods already exist to reduce the volatility of Bakken oil from North Dakota, a particularly explosive form of fracked oil that’s led the surge in rail transport through Toronto. She said that volatile oil can by stabilized, and such technologies are required in some jurisdictions, like Texas, but that North Dakota has yet to impose similar regulations.

“What’s good enough for Texans, who are not a people known for hyper-regulation, is good enough for my constituents,” said Freeland, arguing that the Conservatives’ inability to convince American officials to improve regulations represents a failure in diplomatic relations.

Henry Wiercinski, one of the directors of the Annex Residents’ Association, drew particularly warm applause when he called on the government to “slow the trains down”. Though the speed limit on the line through Toronto is 35 miles per hour for hazardous goods, Wiercinski said, the cars are known to puncture at even lower speeds. Someone in the audience shouted that they’ve seen the trains going much faster.

(Reached for comment subsequent to the meeting, CP?press officer Salem Woodrow said that the company monitors its crews using on-board recording systems and that failure to comply with speed limits would “result in consequences for employees. Train speed limits are strictly adhered to. “If residents believe that a train is exceeding the speed limit, they should report it to CP.”)

Bennett stirred up a bit of controversy when she called for “a serious conversation about rerouting”. There might be formidable political obstacles to bypassing Toronto, one woman noted, since the rail line running north of the city passes right through Raitt’s Halton riding.

But Safe Rail Communities doesn’t support rerouting. The group has grown into a national organization, and Lai doesn’t think shifting the problem to another community is a real solution.

“If we say we don’t want them in our backyards, well, who will?” she asked. “Some people are saying ‘move it up to Milton’; well, those places are populated too, and saying that this group of citizens’ lives are more valuable than that group is not going to effect any meaningful change.”

Despite the occasional disagreement, all of the panellists agreed that, between strengthening tank car standards, improving infrastructure, and increasing government oversight, something could be done to make communities safer. Freeland, who lives only a block away from the rail line, put it bluntly.

“Look, the reality is, this is very fixable,” she said. “Ultimately it is the job of the federal government to regulate and it is the job of the federal government to keep people safe. And a federal government that cared about that could fix this really quite quickly.”

As the debate went on, some in the crowd started to propose more drastic tactics to force Raitt’s hand. Peter von Bitter, who said he helped stop the Spadina expressway from cutting through the Annex more than 40 years ago, called for another round of civil disobedience.

“There are all these unprotected crossings,” he said. “So one thousand people could just go there and refuse to move. Surely the newspapers would be invited.”

Lai didn’t think she’d lead the charge for direct action, but said blocking the rails might do some good.

“We agree that those kinds of things are part of the discussion and solution,” she said. “Maybe not for us personally, but absolutely, those kinds of people do get attention, and that’s what we need.”

A few in the crowd seemed eager to join von Bitter, including Dionne Renée, a former mayoral candidate.

“I’m sure many people will join on the corridors of Toronto to stand there in front of the trains and say ‘You’re not moving forward!’ in order to get Lisa Raitt, or anyone else, to start taking action,” she said, before throwing a question back at the MPs sitting behind her.

“I ask our elected officials, would you be on the front of the line standing on the tracks with us?”

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