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Canada’s major freight rail carriers attempted to reduce safety inspections on rail cars carrying dangerous goods exactly a month before the Lac-Mégantic, Que., tragedy, CBC News has learned.
The Railway Association of Canada, whose major members include CNand CP Rail, asked the federal transport minister at the time, on June 7, 2013, to repeal rules that require certified rail car inspectors to do detailed examinations of brakes, axles, wheels and car components before they are loaded.
The RAC argued that the examinations done at designated yards were “redundant” and “overlay,” given that train conductors and engineers walk the length of their trains, and rail lines now are equipped with “wayside inspection detectors, wheel impact detectors and cold wheel set detectors.”
- Railway Association of Canada letter to unions
- CAW letter to Railway Association of Canada
- Teamsters letter to Railway Association of Canada
- Railway Association of Canada letter to Transport Canada
Last month, the RAC twice denied they had ever sought to repeal the inspection rules, until CBC News confronted the organization with their own correspondence. A spokesman released a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“The RAC proposed language to modify the rules,” wrote Paul Goyette, and among them was a suggestion to remove an inspection on dangerous goods cars before they are loaded. “In some instances, depending on route and railways involved, it might result in the elimination of a redundant inspection, but that would not have any direct impact on safety based on industry research, study and science.”
Goyette acknowledged in an earlier e-mail that “in light of events at Lac-Mégantic and in the interest of safety” the RAC withdrew their pitch to reduce inspections.
Late on July 6, 2013, an unmanned, 72-car train carrying crude oil rolled down a hill and into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., where it derailed and exploded, killing 47 people.
The RAC wrote to Transport Canada 12 days later, saying: “The RAChas had discussions with Transport Canada surrounding the proposed change, and at this time we both feel there is more work to be done in this area. As such, we would ask that you rescind our filing and we will revisit this matter at a future date.”
Early Wednesday, the office of Transport Minister Lisa Raitt — appointed days after the tragedy — told CBC News: “The RACwithdrew their pitch to reduce inspections and it’s a good thing they did, because I would have never allowed this to happen.”
Unions warned of risk
Unions consulted on the proposed change had objected from the outset, citing safety concerns for employees and the general public.
Robert D. Smith of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference wrote on May 21, saying that “the boom in oil production has prompted a huge rise in crude-by-rail transport as output has outgrown the existing pipeline network. Recent train derailments causing spills have heightened concerns about the environmental impact of rail shipments.”
Even though it was six weeks before the events at Lac-Mégantic, Smith wrote: “This is therefore not the time to be considering a relaxation of rules … but rather a time to maintain that which is in place to safeguard these increased movements.”
Transport Canada figures show that since 2006, the volume of dangerous goods being shipped by train in Canada has risen more than 30 per cent. However, the numbers of accidents and incidents reported by rail companies involving dangerous goods appears to be falling.
The Transportation Safety Board’s database of dangerous goods derailments and incidents reported by companies shows 3774 mishaps across the country between 2000 and 2012.
Evidence ‘isn’t in’
The TSB data, obtained by CBC News, suggest one-third of all problems with dangerous goods rail cars was detected through inspections. Often, workers noticed the problem either by smelling it or spotting a leak.
Brian Stevens of Unifor, which represents the carmen who would normally make comprehensive inspections, echoed his May 23 objections to the proposed change, telling CBC News about the “over-reliance we see creeping into the industry where they want to rely more and more on the technology — hot box detectors, impact detectors, cold wheel detectors — to do away with the car inspections in the safety maintenance locations and say ‘listen, we have this terrific technology that’s going to tell us when cars are faulty.’
“And the evidence isn’t in on that.”
Stevens points to the recent derailment in Plaster Rock, N.B., where investigators found a broken axle contributed to the accident.
“That train had just recently passed a hot box detector and an impact detector, and didn’t note that,” Stevens said. “We had a similar situation last summer in Sudbury, where there was a derailment, took out a bridge (over the Wanapitei River), and that train I believe only nine miles earlier had gone past a hot box detector that didn’t detect the failure in the wheels.”
‘Dismal’ success rate
In his May 23 letter, Stevens said the most important inspection is on brakes.
“Data provided by CP in relation to Automated Train Brake Effectiveness (ATBE) scanners indicate a dismal train scan success rate of 69 per cent to date,” he wrote. “This misplaced reliance on technology thereby confirms that over 30 per cent of freight car equipment passing these detectors are not monitored.”
Last spring, the RAC argued that it had done a risk assessment and noted that the combination of inspections — by conductors and locomotive engineers who “have been extensively trained” to spot problems, and the automated detectors — would help prevent derailments.
Transport Canada refused to tell CBC News how many of their own inspectors are dedicated to inspections of dangerous goods cars, and whether those inspectors are on the ground or simply monitoring rail company reports on self-inspection.
In an email to the CBC, Transport Canada said: “Railway companies are responsible for the safety of their rail line infrastructure, railway equipment and operations. This includes ongoing inspection, testing and maintenance programs in accordance with regulatory requirements, as well as any particular operating and environmental conditions.”
Transport Canada did not respond to questions about its discussions with the RAC to reduce the inspections.
By Solarina Ho
TORONTO (Reuters) – Mile-long trains carrying crude oil will likely keep chugging through North American cities even after a string of fiery disasters spurred safety officials to urge that railways send risky cargo along less populated routes.
Re-routing the crude-by-rail trains that support booming North American oil production would be hugely difficult given the location of major rail lines and lack of alternatives, industry watchers say, adding that skirting major centers carries different types of risks.
“In the U.S., rail built the West. Literally. The railroad came first, and then towns sprung up along the route. And so as a consequence, rail transit’s the heart of many of our cities and towns,” said Brigham McCown, a former chief counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation and former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
“It’s called the main line for a reason,” he added.
The dangers of sending crude by rail due to increasingly clogged pipelines were highlighted last July, when an unmanned, runaway train carrying crude crashed into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling the heart of the small lakeside community and killing 47 people.
Last week, the U.S. and Canadian transportation safety boards, which can only suggest and not impose new rules, recommended more rigorous route planning for shipping crude and other flammable liquids.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which urged that such shipments avoid populated areas, wants crude oil be added to a list of hazardous materials that already requires tougher routing protocols.
“We’re not asking for new rails to be built, we’re not asking for major modifications,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told Reuters.
The thrust of the proposals is risk mitigation, not complete elimination, said Jason Kuehn, vice president for rail practice at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, which makes route planning software used by Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd and CSX Corp.
Kuehn said existing routing regulations in the United States, which govern products such as anhydrous ammonia and chlorine gas, which are even more dangerous than crude oil, have been effective.
FEW ALTERNATIVES IN THE BAKKEN REGION
The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota pump out a type of crude that is more explosive and flammable than some others. It was involved at Lac-Megantic and in other major crashes last year.
But for Bakken oil headed to refineries in the east, alternative train routes are limited.
The most direct route eastward for Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railway Co, the two main railroads running through the Bakken region, is through Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, then Chicago.
“Getting oil from North Dakota to the refineries around Philly without going through Chicago, for one, is enormously difficult,” said Trains magazine writer Fred Frailey, who has followed the industry for more than three decades.
An alternative route for CP Rail, Canada’s second largest railroad, would require going north to Winnipeg, Manitoba, across Northern Ontario, southeast to Toronto and likely to Montreal before heading south to the United States. It’s a route that would swap Chicago for three of Canada’s largest cities.
CSX, which expects to ramp up U.S. crude shipments by 50 percent this year, mostly to East Coast refineries, said it already complies with federal routing guidelines for shipping the most hazardous materials.
“We will evaluate whether those protocols could be applied to oil shipments,” spokeswoman Melanie Cost said in an email.
“However, re-routing requires careful thought and analysis to make sure that hazardous materials operate over tracks that incorporate the most safety features, and that additional miles that may involve other risks are not added to shipments.”
Doniele Carlson, spokeswoman for Kansas City Southern, the smallest of U.S. Class I railroads, noted its network’s size limits routing options.
Some companies have rail lines that bypass city centers, traveling through the outskirts, but those tracks may not necessarily be equipped to handle a high-capacity load or trains traveling at higher speeds, industry experts said.
A crash in a less populated area might wreak less havoc, but emergency responders could take longer to reach a more remote site and may be less equipped to deal with it, they said.
Taking a circuitous route, or traveling on secondary tracks, will also mean a shipment of crude spends more time traveling longer distances, using more fuel, producing higher emissions, and costing more to ship.
“If you’re doubling the length that it takes to get from point A to B, you are potentially doubling the risk for an accident,” said transportation safety expert McCown.
The American Railroad Association and the Railway Association of Canada have said they support the recommendations to improve rail safety, but they declined to comment specifically about route planning. They point to an improving safety record.
The rate of main-track accidents has declined over the past 10 years in Canada and the United States, according to the most recent government data. In Canada, accidents fell 33 percent to 1.6 per million main-track train-miles in 2012, from 2.4 in 2011. In the United States, the main line accident rate fell some 20 percent to 0.8 in 2012, from 1.0 in 2011.
Canada had 2.6 accidents per million main-track train-miles in 2003. The United States had 1.5 in 2003.
But shipping companies are just as involved as the railways in deciding what cargoes are moved and how, and under government-mandated common carrier regulations, North American railroads are legally required to transport products they might otherwise choose to avoid.
“They’ve taken on an inordinate amount of the risk. Even though it’s not their car, and it’s not their product, and it might not have been loaded by them,” said Tony Hatch, independent transportation analyst at ABH Consulting.
“They don’t want to be on the front page of the paper unless it’s for opening a new terminal or cutting a ribbon.”
(Additional reporting by Kristen Hays in Houston; Editing by Jeffrey