OTTAWA — Lord Roberts resident Bev Pike has tried for years to figure out how much oil is moving along the train tracks in her neighbourhood; it seems the number of oil tank cars has increased.
"It’s full trains that are just oil," said Pike, who counts tank cars that bear the red 12-67 placard, which indicates crude oil. "It’s increasing dramatically; that’s what we see in this neighbourhood."
Newly obtained data, which CN Rail fought against being publicly released, provides a rare look at just how much oil has been moving by rail in Manitoba.
CN Rail transported about 20 million barrels of crude oil from Winnipeg to northwestern Ontario over the course of 12 months five years ago, according to risk assessments the railway filed to Transport Canada.
The April 2014 report shows the company transported 97,000 carloads of dangerous goods, of which 29,000 had crude oil, in one year.
The fact that the report was only made public five years later underscores the difficulty concerned citizens, environmental groups and journalists face in trying to obtain the most basic information needed to assess railways’ risk-reduction measures.
Transport Canada released the data last month after a federal commissioner intervened in a July 2015 access-to-information request. Officials rejected CN Rail’s arguments that divulging the data would present a serious risk to public safety.
"It’s pretty telling that Canadians have to really fight and wait years just for the right to know what’s passing through their communities," said Charles Hatt, a Toronto lawyer with Ecojustice, a charity.
Hatt requested the report on behalf of the advocacy group Safe Rail Communities, which was formed following the 2013 rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in which 47 people were killed.
In the wake of that tragedy, the Harper government compelled large railways that carry dangerous goods to undertake and submit detailed risk assessments.
The April 2014 report shows that 97,000 carloads of dangerous goods were transported through the Sprague subdivision, which runs from Winnipeg’s Symington Yard east to Rainy River, Ont. Crude oil was in 29,000 of those cars.
Although the volume of a carload can vary based on the type of crude oil, the calculation for the most common type of oil shipment likely would have totalled 20 million barrels of oil.
The time period of those shipments is marked as "annual," although CN Rail would not confirm the time period in which the data was collected. The figures line up with with American filings by the corporation’s U.S. subsidiary for the 2013 calendar year.
It’s hard to compare that data with more recent shipments because such information published by railways is scant. CN said that’s because it is too risky.
"Public safety demands that details respecting dangerous goods routing and volumes shipped per route need to be secure and used only for emergency preparedness and response purposes and only by those mandated to be involved," wrote spokesman Jonathan Abecassis.
He asserted that "detailed traffic data from 2014 is not something that necessarily holds much validity today" because the volume of dangerous goods and the routes they take "change constantly."
However, other reports show the amount of crude oil shipped by rail across Canada has been increasing at a dramatic rate.
The National Energy Board said a record high of 327,229 barrels per day were exported by rail in October 2018. That’s nearly 2.5 times more than in October 2017, and a string of record-breaking highs has followed.
Energy board data also show that pipelines transport vastly more oil through Manitoba than rail cars, with 2.9 million barrels per day in 2014; that number grew to 3.8 million last year.
Instead of providing more recent data on rail shipments, Abecassis noted that last year, CN had only two derailments in Canada in which dangerous goods were spilled. He added that train shipments mean explosive material are not transported on highways.
CN joined two other rail companies in a British Columbia tribunal case last November, arguing that allowing the province to publish quarterly reports on how much oil each rail line carried would empower saboteurs and terrorists.
Both Hatt and Pike were sympathetic to that concern, but they argue rail companies could let citizens know roughly how much oil is moving through their communities over the course of months without putting those tracks in danger.
"When you disclose meaningful information you’re demonstrating trust in Canadians as well; it’s a two-way thing," Pike said.
"The tools are easily available, you could disclose information in a meaningful way that also protects public interest. There’s steps to take to build trust, and they’re not taking them," she said. "That means there’s something shady going on."
Last spring, an independent review of rail safety submitted to Transport Minister Marc Garneau argued that Canadians ought to have more information, because the Lac-Mégantic disaster still leaves many Canadians skeptical of how railways are regulated.
The report warned that mistrust in the rail sector could end up matching the opposition to pipelines that has stalled major projects.
When asked about that concern last Wednesday, Garneau noted that first-responders have access to real-time data as needed; he did not speak about public access.
"Carrying certain products has to be kept, to some extent, secure, so there is not a precise and advertised knowledge of every single product that’s in every train crossing the country," Garneau told the Free Press.
Pike said it’s hard to trust CN’s claims that it prioritizes safety without being able to see specific local data, especially after last spring’s series of brush fires along its Winnipeg rail lines. The company denied it was at fault; the city produced video evidence that disputed that contention.
"If everything else added up it would be a different story, but they sure don’t seem open and transparent now."