Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rail safety still far from perfect

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The federal government will require rail companies to identify hazardous goods that have moved through their municipalities, but only after the cargo has long since cleared the station.

The Canadian Federation of Municipalities hailed the announcement as a victory in its effort to make communities safer, but the announcement isn't really that significant in terms of boosting safety in large cities.

Emergency crews already have access to the identity of dangerous goods in their communities in the event of an explosion or fire.

If a rail car or group of cars goes up in flames, protocols are in place for fire crews to determine what kind of threat they are facing, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service says.

The new regulation requiring rail companies to provide information on hazardous goods on a quarterly basis -- or long after they have moved out of the community -- will still provide some benefits.

The information will help inform small communities with modest emergency resources on the range of possible risks. They may learn they need new partnerships and new skills to prepare for potential disasters.

Larger cities with robust emergency services will also benefit from more detailed knowledge about what disasters they could face, although they are already trained to respond to a broad range of threats.

Dangerous goods move through Winnipeg daily, so there is limited advantage in giving cities a detailed manifest. It wouldn't change the way emergency responders operate. The important issue is the need to know immediately what's on fire, or what's been spilled.

Some municipalities demanded to know what's being transported through their communities following a catastrophic fire and explosion caused by a derailment last July in Lac-Mégantic, Que. There were also demands for other safety measures and for legislation to force rail carriers to boost their insurance.

Ottawa is responding to those concerns, although it has yet to issue new regulations requiring tighter security for rail cars parked on main lines in municipalities, particularly if they are carrying dangerous goods.

Several rail mishaps this year have sparked rising demands for increased safety, even though the record of railways in safely shipping hazardous goods is excellent. The stakes are so high, however. Nearly perfect isn't good enough. There is room for improvement, and it should be pursued vigorously.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 A16

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