Revelstoke faces an increased risk of a rail accident should shipments of crude oil by train increase, but there are factors in place that could mitigate Revelstoke’s exposure, according to a UBC professor.
“Of course, the exposure goes up given the probability if you double the number of trains going through with hazardous goods. That’s just common sense,” said Garland Chow, a professor of logistics at the University of British Columbia. However, he added, “I would suggest the increase of renewed diligence will ensure the percentage of accidents will be no worse than historically, if not better in the foreseeable future.”
I spoke to Chow last week following the devastating train accident that wrecked the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing at least 35 people, with another 15 missing and presumed dead. The explosion, which occurred when a runaway train carrying more than 70 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded in the centre of town on July 6.
The tragedy has sparked many questions about rail safety, especially regarding the transportation of crude oil by train, which has increased exponentially in recent years.
As reported last week in this paper, according to Transport Canada, 1,200 carloads of crude oil and petroleum products were shipped to B.C. last year. That number doesn’t specify whether they came via CN or CP. It is less than 10 per cent of the estimated 20,000 carloads of crude that was shipped from Alberta in 2012, according to a report by Malcolm Cairns and published by the Canadian Transportation Research Forum.
Shipment of crude by rail is increasing as companies working in the Alberta tar sands look for ways to get their product to market. CP Rail provides rail links through terminals in Edmonton, the Alberta Industrial Heartland to the northeast, and Hardisty, Alta. Most of that oil heads south to the United States and east to Ontario and Quebec. Only a small amount heads through B.C., but that number has been increasing rapidly since 2009.
Cairns’ report provides a detailed look at pipeline capacity, potential future pipeline capacity, and the ability of CN and CP to transport oil by train. He concludes that if CN and CP were to increase their capacity to service the oil sands, it would mean they would each move an additional five trains per day, carrying 63,000 to 78,000 barrels of oil each. Two of those trains would move along the CP mainline between Alberta and Vancouver.
Currently, CP handles 30–35 trains per day west to Vancouver, Cairns writes.
Were this to happen, this would mean an increased exposure to Revelstoke, and everywhere along the CP mainline.
Of course, oil isn’t the only concern. Trains also carry huge amounts of chemicals every day.
The risks of a chemical spill from a train are huge, as evidenced by the Cheakamus River disaster on Aug. 5, 2005. On that day, a CN Rail train traveling over the Cheakamus River north of Squamish, B.C., derailed, leaking 40,000 litres of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda, or lye) into the river below.
The spill caused widespread harm to the local fish population as the sodium hydroxide flowed downstream. According to the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, as many as 500,000 fish were killed.
Closer to Revelstoke, in February 2007, a CP Rail train derailed east of Golden, B.C. Two of the eight cars that jumped the tracks contained sodium hydroxide and another was carrying hydrochloric acid, which leaked from the car. In that case, the spill was contained before it could cause any significant environmental harm.
In June 2011, one of the cars involved in a train derailment in Albert Canyon was a tank car, however no spill resulted.
“If a train is going out of control, it doesn’t make much difference what its carrying,” said Chow. “If something happens to a train, what its pulling is usually irrelevant. If it’s a hazardous commodity, it will have a bigger impact.”
There are factors that could lower the risk from the increased exposure, said Chow. For one, the tragedy in Lac-Megantic will likely lead to a review of safety protocols and, hopefully, stronger safety measures and increased safety inspections by Transport Canada. The caveat being both CP Rail and Transport Canada’s willingness and ability to put an extra emphasis on safety.
Is there the regulatory capacity to enforce safety measures?
“Unfortunately that’s a question that can’t be answered because Transport Canada won’t tell you,” said Chow. “There has been a number of accusations made that because of the cuts at Transport Canada, that this might have resulted in less diligence on the part of regulation of safety, and less continuous improvement in terms of ensuring the right safety protocols and requirements are actually in case.”
Budget cuts at the Federal level have affected every department, he noted. “This is a matter of placing a priority on where you make the cuts, and we often say that safety is a priority and therefore hopefully Transport Canada did not cut in that area. Hopefully that’s not an underlying reason there was an accident.”
Chow noted the differences between Lac-Megantic and Revelstoke. For one, the rail yard in the former is located on a hill above the town, meaning a runaway train would roll downhill. He also said the fact there are two people aboard every train should make a difference, because there’s an extra person to conduct safety checks.
He also said the presence of a strong union with CP is a factor because it provides the workers with a voice when it comes to safety.
“They play a very strong role in the mainline railways in that they’ll stand up, they’ll make noise and they’ll submit suggestions and negotiate for better safety conditions for their employees,” he said. “I believe that is missing for the short line railroads.”