With rail safety, don’t wait until it’s too late
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It was literally a train wreck, albeit a small one: 12 railway tank cars containing bitumen, a heavy oil byproduct, went off the tracks just over a week ago right in the city, on top of the rail overpass at McPhillips Street.
Maybe a train wreck is too strong.
Maybe you could just call it a warning.
Canadian Pacific didn’t have much to say about the incident. Here’s their entire response: “CPKC crews responded to an incident involving the derailment of rail cars being moved at slow speeds in the Winnipeg yard. All of the derailed cars remained upright. There were no leaks and no spills of any product. No dangerous goods were involved. (There) were no injuries. CPKC regrets the inconvenience the incident has caused motorists.”
Interesting reading. Not quite “move along, there’s nothing to see here” — but close.
There’s another kind of interesting reading you can do if you live in a city transected by railway tracks. When you’re stuck waiting at a rail crossing, or if you’re walking past a stopped train, wondering if it’s got dangerous goods onboard, you can play hazard placard roulette. Just look for the diamond-shaped placards that tell first responders what sorts of things are in each train car. It’s easy enough to take the numbers down and simply look them up online. And you might be surprised at the kind of materials that are trundling their way through your city or town. Things that spill. Things that burn. Things that, while burning, can give off dangerous gases.
Acids. Solvents. Compressed gases. Anhydrous ammonia or other chemicals. Tank car after tank car of heavy oil. As of April 1, 2022, there were 443,857 railway tank cars registered for use in North America.
As well as dangerous goods, there’s lumber and wheat, barley and potash, new cars and scrap metal: all manner of consumer goods ride the rails, and sometimes, more often than you might think, come off those rails as well.
Historically, having the trains come through town meant the difference between civic success and failure. Selkirk is Selkirk and Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba because of past decisions on the location of rail lines.
But that doesn’t mean that rail corridors have to run through the centre of cities any longer.
It’s not just the rail lines themselves that are throwbacks to an earlier age. The McPhillips rail underpass where the latest derailment happened was built in 1912: already a narrowing of the road, there were concerns the bridge might have been damaged in the latest incident. The bridge over the CP yards at Arlington Street is equally old, and Winnipeg was looking at a tab of $330 million in replacement costs, when replacing the structure was examined in 2019.
The cost of moving the CP line might well be in the billions, but what would the cost be of a serious rail accident within the city? Lac Megantic found out in 2013, when 47 people died. East Palestine, Ohio found out three months ago after cars carrying vinyl chloride derailed and burned.
Let’s not wait to find out.
Think of it another way: if a railway company were to suggest building a new rail line through a different part of Winnipeg, what would the response be?
It would be unequivocal: no way. Too dangerous. In the current case, the danger’s just grandfathered in.
There were reasons for cities to grow up around rail lines.
There were even reasons for rail lines to be in cities.
There aren’t really those kinds of reasons anymore.
In fact, the reasons for removing them are far greater.