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New derailment, fire spur vow of reforms

Feds may table tighter rules for tank cars

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Downtown Lac-Megantic lays in ruins July 7.

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Downtown Lac-Megantic lays in ruins July 7.

OTTAWA -- Yet another railway fire involving crude oil has prompted the chief executive officer of CN Rail to suggest long-overdue regulatory changes to the tank cars used to transport dangerous goods will be introduced soon.

What is being called a controlled burn had been raging for more than 18 hours in northwestern New Brunswick late Wednesday after 17 cars on a CN train -- some carrying propane, others crude oil -- derailed and caught fire.

It is the fifth significant railway accident in North America in the past seven months amid an escalating oil-by-rail boom that appears to have caught government regulators on both sides of the border flat-footed.

A federal rail safety audit, completed last spring before July's deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., claimed 47 lives, found "significant weaknesses" in Transport Canada's oversight.

Claude Mongeau, CEO of CN Rail, told a news conference Wednesday the type of tank cars involved in the derailment near Plaster Rock, N.B., had not yet been determined.

But the Association of American Railroads, of which CN Rail is a member, has been pushing the U.S. Department of Transport to phase in tougher rules for tank-car construction for flammable goods, he noted.

"The transport minister in Canada is personally involved in the same file and I would expect over the next several months that new regulations will come forward to strengthen the design of these cars," Mongeau said.

Older cars known as DOT-111s, the workhorse of the North American fleet, comprise roughly 70 per cent of all tank cars in current use. Yet they've been cited for safety concerns since the mid-1990s without governments on either side of the border stepping in to demand improvements.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office issued a simple statement Wednesday saying only that the latest accident was being investigated.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his government's record on rail safety during a stop in Inuvik.

"We have made significant investments in rail safety and rail inspections," Harper said. "We have increased both of those vastly."

The prime minister said the government will look at any recommendations by the Transportation Safety Board following the New Brunswick investigation. "We will take whatever further steps are necessary."

Canadian rail-accident rates are very low, he added -- in fact, Harper said, they're as low as they've ever been in the history of domestic rail lines.

NDP transport critic Olivia Chow said Wednesday she has no confidence Transport Canada has the capacity to treat rail safety seriously.

"There's like a decade of neglect, indifference and high tolerance of incompetence," said Chow.

As for DOT-111 cars, "there's still no plan on how to phase out these cars. It's just unacceptable," she said. "It's chicken-and-egg: Unless there's regulations and certainty, companies are not going to invest in retrofitting or building new tank cars."

David McGuinty, the Liberal transport critic, noted the Conservative government has burned through five transport ministers during its eight years in office.

"It's a place where people are circuiting through, either on the way down or the way up, but they're not taking it seriously," said McGuinty.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 A10

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