A whopping 28,000 per cent increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail over the past five years is coming under the microscope following the deadly rail blast in Quebec.
Canada's railways have made a determined push to cash in on the country's crude-oil bonanza, painting themselves as a cost-effective alternative to politically unpopular pipelines such as the proposed Keystone XL.
The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to rattle over the nation's tracks this year, up from only 500 carloads in 2009.
The eye-popping increase has gone largely unnoticed because public attention has been focused on the pipeline debates, said NDP energy critic Peter Julian.
Driven by the development of unconventional energy sources, the railway group expects a similar increase in traffic in the coming years, noting as many as 600 barrels can be moved per carload.
"Railways have become a complementary option for moving crude to refineries located near tidewater for access by ocean tankers (that) are not currently served by pipeline," the railway association's president, Michael Bourque, wrote in as recent online message, posted prior to the weekend tragedy.
He singled out the Irving refinery in New Brunswick as one example.
Now Irving Oil has confirmed in a statement the fateful shipment of crude, which exploded Saturday, was bound for its New Brunswick refinery.
A rash of accidents and spills over the last year, in both Canada and the U.S., prompted Bourque to take aim at critics, who questioned safety, saying their remarks "are simply not true" and railways deliver dangerous goods "99.9977 per cent" of the time without incident.
The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight-train accident under investigation involving crude-oil shipments since the beginning of the year, according to the federal Transportation Safety Board.
There have been a number of high-profile accidents recently, including one late last month on a sagging bridge in flood-ravaged Calgary. The derailed cars were able to be removed without spilling their cargo.
A month earlier, 91,000 litres of oil spilled from a CP Rail car near Jansen, Sask.
Jean-Paul Lacoursi®re, a chemical-engineering professor at Quebec's University of Sherbrooke, said there are more variables to consider when using rail instead of pipelines.
"The state of the track, how well the equipment is maintained, mechanical errors -- all these things need to be considered," said Lacoursi®re, an expert in the shipment of dangerous substances. "It doesn't mean we can use an old pipeline without assessment of the risks. But if you have a good pipeline, there's less risk."
Julian said the Harper government has largely abandoned railway inspection, imposing as much as $3 million in cuts, and allowed the industry to monitor itself.
It's not good enough for the association to claim only a tiny fraction of the dangerous goods ever go off the rails, he added.
"When you talk to residents of places like Lac-Mégantic, they would not accept anything less than the highest possible safety standards," Julian said.
-- The Canadian Press