Rail disaster risk remains high in Canada, experts say

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Risks of rail disasters remain high in Canada, say experts

“A disaster like the one in Lac-Mégantic is always possible. »

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Toxic smoke was present in the air in Lac-Mégantic, in Quebec, after the explosion of the train filled with oil, in July 2013. This tragedy caused the death of 47 people.

The derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in the community of East Palestine, Ohio, has awakened bad memories for those who lived the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. Many fear that the scenario will repeat itself, and experts are worried.

Louis-Serge Parent experienced the train explosion in Lac-Mégantic too closely. He lives about 100 meters from the now famous Musi-Café which caught fire when the train of 72 crude oil wagons ended its course in a deadly explosion on July 6, 2013. I saw the orange light, recalls the one who had to flee his house ravaged by flames.

The East Palestine derailment in Ohio caused a huge fire and the evacuation of several thousand people. Among other things, the train was carrying vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic and highly flammable chemical used in the manufacture of plastic.

Louis-Serge Parent watched with horror what happened on February 3, in the locality of East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment of the train carrying toxic chemicals caused a huge fire and the evacuation of hundreds of people.

When he sees other tragedies like this happening , he feels that the situation is getting worse. It's not safer, says the one who is one of three residents of Lac-Mégantic who filed a class action lawsuit against the Canadian Pacific on behalf of all the relatives of the victims.

“I figure we'll never learn.”

— Louis-Serge Parent, resident of Lac-Mégantic

The Lac-Mégantic tragedy was the deadliest derailment in Canada in 150 years, says rail safety consultant Ian Naish, former head of the Transportation Safety Board . After the tragedy, a series of measures were introduced. Despite this, rail safety experts believe the chances of another disaster happening again remain high.

A day after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, firefighters continued to water the charred tank cars. This photo was taken on July 7, 2013.

Among the measures introduced are the reduction of train speeds and the increase in track inspection requirements for trains transporting dangerous goods. According to Ian Naish, these new security measures are marginal.

He cites the example of tank cars which must now be more robust to avoid cracking in the event of a derailment. However, according to the consultant, the one that occurred in 2019 near Guernsey, Saskatchewan, demonstrates that even stronger tank cars can not do anything against high speeds. The accident resulted in a major fire and the release of approximately 1.6 million liters of crude oil.

A lot of work has been done to make these cars more robust , but all bets are off when they exceed 35 miles per hour [56 km/h], explains Ian Naish.

A disaster like that of Lac-Mégantic is always possible, believes Bruce Campbell, an assistant professor in York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies and author of the book Investigation of the Lac-Mégantic disaster : when the authorities go off the rails.

Bruce Campbell points out that repeated calls for an independent inquiry after the 2013 tragedy have never been heeded. He believes the rail industry lobby has delayed implementing changes to secure rail travel.

“People who live near train tracks, whether in Lac-Mégantic or in the heart of Toronto or Vancouver, are still at risk.

— Bruce Campbell, author of Lac-Mégantic Disaster Investigation

In a 2020 report, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada indicated that Transport Canada had still not done enough to prevent the risks surrounding the transport of dangerous goods. Investigators have pointed out that while administrative changes have been implemented, too few physical changes have been made.

Chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Kathy Fox , expressed, when releasing a report in 2022, its disappointment at the slow implementation of physical methods of fail-safe train control in rail corridors.

There is progress, but it's very, very slow,” Kathy Fox told CBC. “I can't say that [the accident in Ohio] couldn't happen here.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) reported 86 rail accidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials in 2021. In two cases, there was a spill. The TSB says it has recorded an average of four rail accidents involving a spill per year over the past decade.

The Railway Association of Canada, an industry lobby group, did not respond to CBC's interview request. However, it has argued in the past that Canadian railways are safer than ever.

In a February 13 press release, the Association's President and CEO, Marc Brazeau , said: We have long known that Canada's freight railways are the safest in North America. They are also the most profitable on the continent, and their prices are among the lowest in the world.

In East Palestine, Ohio, a man observes the cloud of black smoke caused by a detonation controlled following the train derailment on February 6.

University of Delaware rail and safety engineering program director Allan Zarembski says the Ohio derailment is unfortunate, but not common. It states that 10 to 20 leaks of hazardous chemicals are reported each year across North America. Am I going to say there is no risk? No, I will not say that, he adds, however.

Allan Zarembski still believes that the rail industry has the motivation to prevent devastating and costly derailments.

The residents of Lac-Mégantic are still living with the consequences of the tragedy: 47 dead, 26 children orphaned and 6 million liters of toxic materials spilled. The class action lawsuit against Canadian Pacific is still ongoing. The decision rendered last December by the Superior Court, clearing the rail carrier for its role in the tragedy, has just been appealed.

Joël Rochon, the attorney representing the class action plaintiffs, said in a written statement that he believes more accidents and spills will occur if the industry does not change safety culture and standards. /p>

“We cannot rely on the rail industry, in its current state, to police itself.

—Joël Rochon, lawyer representing plaintiffs in the Canadian Pacific Railway class action

Active government regulation and intervention is needed, he writes. The rail industry needs to move away from its archaic, siled and traditional approach to risk management, and recognize that safety is everyone's responsibility.

With information by Yvette Brend

Digital story: Lac-Mégantic, the last night

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