WITH rail cars hauling many kinds of hazardous material through Winnipeg, the Lac-Mégantic, Que., disaster prompted a common question: could it happen here?
"This is a rare circumstance," said supply chain management Prof. Barry Prentice at the University of Manitoba. "I’ve seen it in a couple of movies but you don’t ever hear of runaway trains in Canada or U.S."
Early Saturday morning, a runaway train laden with crude oil exploded and killed at least 13 people, decimating Lac-Mégantic’s downtown, where 40 people were still reported missing Monday.
"Railways are viewed as the safest form of transportation," Prentice said. There’s been a 28,000 per cent increase in the amount of crude oil shipped by rail over the past five years in Canada but the number of derailments has stuck at a little more than one a day, he said.
‘This accident serves as a graphic illustration why rail lines should not be run through the heart of urban areas’ — Winnipeg MP Pat Martin
A spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board in Hull, Que., couldn’t confirm Monday that the rail cars that exploded en route to a refinery in New Brunswick were hauled through the Winnipeg. One Winnipeg MP said the weekend rail catastrophe showed what could happen here.
"This accident serves as a graphic illustration why rail lines should not be run through the heart of urban areas," said Pat Martin, long a lone advocate of moving Winnipeg’s CP rail yards. "It’s ‘there but for the grace of God’ that we haven’t had a tragic accident."
Though well-versed on the rail issue, Martin said he has never seen a detailed account of exactly how many dangerous goods such as petroleum products, travel through Winnipeg.
Prentice said crude and many kinds of hazardous materials move safely by rail through Winnipeg frequently.
"It’s not like we can say we don’t want propane or caustic soda or crude (moving by rail)," he said. "If it didn’t go on rail cars, you’d be moving five tractor trailers (for every rail car) instead."
With two major railways and several smaller companies moving commodities regularly over a massive country, a little more than one derailment a day isn’t much, he said.
If Canadians want to move rail lines away from their cities, there’s legislation to do that, but taxpayers would be on the hook for it, said Prentice.
"We’d have to compensate the railway for that cost," he said. If Manitobans are already up in arms over a one per cent provincial sales tax increase, he can’t see them lobbying for more government spending to move trains hauling hazardous goods out of the city.
"I don’t think we’re going to get people to pay more taxes to pay for a railway around Winnipeg. But one day it could happen for various reasons, like redevelopment and use of that corridor," he said. Moving trains away from populated urban areas could be a win-win situation for railway companies and urban residents, he added.
"There would be benefits if they could have a bypass around the city," Prentice said. "Speed limits are much slower through the city. If you watch trains going past the Goldeyes (Shaw Park downtown), they’re on a curve and have to go even slower," he said. "If the CP line was relocated, a huge amount of that area would open up for other uses — as a right of way for rapid transit," he said.
Cities used to lobby for railways to run through them, said Prentice. "It’s 100 years later and things have reversed." Next time onlookers watch a train rumble by downtown, images of the Lac-Mégantic disaster may come to mind.
"It’s always sobering and it reminds us that systems can fail," said Prentice. "But we should also note... is it’s such a rare occurrence. Seldom do we see a problem with a railway of this nature. It’s safe, environmentally safe and a very efficient means of transport as well."
The railways are largely self-monitoring, critics say, with companies assessing and managing risk. Prentice said the bottom line forces them to be careful.
"Railways have a huge stake in safety not just because of bad press — they’re self-insured and when an accident like this happens it’s the railways that incur the cost."
— with file from Mary Agnes Welch