December 10, 2019

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CN has role to play in risk reduction

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>A Winnipeg firefighter douses a brush fire.</p>


A Winnipeg firefighter douses a brush fire.

Canadian National Railway says it will cover claims for damage when it’s proven one of its trains caused a fire. One can only wonder what such proof entails.

Security camera footage from a golf driving range on Wilkes Avenue appears to show a CN train sparking a brush fire on Sunday.

Driving-range owner John Wheeler shared the video with media, explaining, "I looked behind the train and saw all this freaking smoke back there. The train passed and I looked down the lines and it was all on fire, everywhere."

It was one of five blazes Winnipeg’s acting fire chief believes were started by a single CN train.

So how does CN react when told one of its trains may have left behind a trail of fires as it snaked through St. Boniface, The Forks and south Charleswood?

A statement released by CN says the company will cover damage for "legitimate" claims.

For people unacquainted with corporate legal-speak, that likely means this: we won’t pay up until forced to by a court.

CN’s inclination to litigate rather than accept responsibility is reflected in the caseload of its lawyers, who currently are defending at least three lawsuits in Manitoba involving damage from fires allegedly started by trains.

On Wednesday, a CN spokeswoman said reducing or rerouting train traffic through Winnipeg during high-risk dry periods is not feasible because goods must continue to be shipped on a 24/7 basis. As many as 40 CN trains roll through the city daily.

She did concede, however, that attention can be paid to vegetation control near rail lines and equipment inspection and maintenance in order to lessen the chances of train-sparked brush fires.

Winnipeggers have for years called for better public reporting of the concealed cargoes that trains carry through densely populated areas. The railroads shield such information behind a wall of secrecy, commonly claiming "proprietary business privilege."

In 2012, American railroad giant CSX published a list of materials carried by Canadian railroads. The list included chlorine, crude oil, methanol and propane.

But Winnipeggers who want to know whether such explosive chemicals are passing near their homes and schools should consider the experience of an Ontario group called Safe Rail Communities, which in 2015 asked Transport Canada for copies of risk assessments for all major railways and information about dangerous goods passing through communities. The requested documents came back heavily redacted and blacked out.

Alarmingly, it was revealed in 2014 that Transport Canada had waived safety rules for both CNR and CPR on issues such as brake inspections. The government regulator refused to disclose why it granted the exemptions, claiming such information is private.

Railroads are unlikely to put the interests of citizens ahead of the interests of corporations. It’s up to Transport Canada to force them to be more publicly accountable when it comes to such issues as starting fires and moving dangerous chemicals.

The public’s need to know such information — in Winnipeg and elsewhere across Canada — took on an urgent edge when the derailment of a freight train carrying crude oil through Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 6, 2013, caused a massive explosion and fire that killed 47 people.

It showed that the worst that could happen can, indeed, happen.

Railroads should not be allowed to maintain public secrecy about their safety deficiencies. Winnipeggers might be inclined to think of Lac-Mégantic every time a freight train loaded with who-knows-what rolls through a crowded area such as The Forks.


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