July 7, 2020

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Rail safety concerns require strict oversight

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/1/2019 (545 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the end, it comes down to trust.

Is it reasonable for governments, and the regulatory bodies they create and support, to trust profit-driven private industries to police themselves on matters of public safety and public accountability? The fiscal imperatives to contain costs and streamline bureaucratic processes often lead elected officials to conclude — perhaps wishfully — that the answer is yes.

The reality, as evidenced by numerous alarming revelations in Free Press reporter Dylan Robertson’s three-part series on rail safety and the largely ignored risks posed to Winnipeg by increased movement of oil-filled tanker cars through the city, is that in order to be granted and maintained, trust must be earned.

One of two trains that derailed near Portage la Prairie last Thursday was transporting hazardous goods. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

One of two trains that derailed near Portage la Prairie last Thursday was transporting hazardous goods. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

The government of Canada’s decision to entrust the railway industry with the duty to create its own safety rules and then rely on Transport Canada inspections to ensure they’re being followed becomes particularly troubling in light of what academic and author Bruce Campbell (The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied) describes as a series of political decisions over the past three decades leading to a "systematic erosion" of railway safety rules.

Also of great concern is the fact the volume of hazardous goods — most notably crude oil — being transported by rail through major metropolitan centres such as Winnipeg has increased exponentially, as tanker-car shipments of oil to the U.S. Midwest, on routes that include the lines running through this city, have reached nearly 2.5 million barrels per month.

In Canada, any discussion of rail safety and oil transport will inevitably circle back to the 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., which killed 47 people and destroyed more than 30 buildings in the town’s centre. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has rightly pointed out that Manitoba’s flat terrain makes the likelihood of such a tragedy, involving a runaway collection of unbraked cars on a downhill slope, unlikely in this province, but the complexity and number of potential failure points in railway operation create numerous other possibilities for disaster.

And as the Free Press series laid out in extensive detail, issues ranging from inadequate training and staffing of inspection personnel to mishandled or ignored warnings to operation of trains and other equipment by overtired staff who have been unable to take mandated rest breaks have greatly increased the risk of a mishap.

Railway officials and federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau contend that safety is the industry’s No. 1 priority and that Canada’s rail system has become much safer in the half-decade since Lac-Mégantic. Whether that’s true remains a matter of statistical interpretation, but the numbers don’t lie when it comes to quantifying the volume of crude oil being moved by rail through heavily populated Canadian communities.

The volume of hazardous goods being transported by rail through major metropolitan centres has increased exponentially. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The volume of hazardous goods being transported by rail through major metropolitan centres has increased exponentially. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

There is no small irony, of course, to the fact rail transport of crude — which has fairly been described as a de-facto oil pipeline — continues to increase with very little scrutiny at the same time Canada is in the grips of a heated and seemingly unresolvable debate over the construction of actual oil pipelines. In the seemingly ceaseless discussions of such initiatives as Trans Mountain, Energy East and Keystone XL, environmental concerns and safety considerations have been front-of-mind. When it comes to rail transport of oil, then, how can a safety system based on trust be good enough?

Trust is an essential part of any functional relationship. But when it’s misplaced, the results have the potential to be calamitous.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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