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5 lingering questions following Saskatchewan’s 2 recent oil train derailments

Saskatoon

Transport Canada still won't say what "minor non-compliances" were found during track inspections before the two recent oil train derailments near Guernsey, Sask.

Smoke billows up from a derailed Canadian Pacific Railway train near Guernsey, Sask., on Thursday, February 6, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It's been nearly three months since the first of two CP oil trains derailed and spilled more than one million litres of diluted bitumen near the hamlet of Guernsey, Sask.

After the second crash, on Feb. 6, Transport Canada ordered all large trains hauling dangerous goods across the country to slow down. The department also announced it would work with railway companies to develop new permanent safety measures focused on infrastructure maintenance and winter operations.

But questions remain about those measures, as well inspections of the Guernsey track prior to the recent derailments there.

What were the 'non-compliances' found on the CP track near Guernsey?

Transport Canada still won't say.

The Sutherland subdivision track that the Guernsey derailments happened on was inspected three times in the last year: twice before the first derailment on Dec. 9, and again after that derailment.

During the first two inspections — which took place on May 7 and August 27 of 2019 — "minor non-compliances" were found on the track.

But what exactly were those non-compliances?

When CBC News initially asked the question on Feb. 12, Transport Canada referred the question to CP Rail, which didn't answer the question, either.

CBC News again asked the regulator for details more recently.

"Results of our inspections contain third-party information so we are not able to disclose them outside of the access to information process," said Simon Rivet, a Transport Canada spokesperson.

In general, non-compliances don't have an immediate impact on rail safety, "which is why Transport Canada allows railways 30 days to undertake corrective action," Rivet said.

Why is the safety review partly focused on track maintenance, then?

Because the ministry says it must take an "all-encompassing approach," Rivet said.

According to the Rivet, "The key risks factors associated with the transportation of dangerous goods by rail involve: 1) the speed a train is travelling; 2) the nature of the infrastructure over which a train travels; 3) the weather conditions—namely temperature; and 4) the weight of the train."

"The speed that a train travels affects the number of cars that derail during an accident and the longer and heavier a train is, the more cars that can derail," Rivet added.

"Breakages in rail are more frequent during periods of severe, cold temperatures. Reducing the speed of higher risk key trains will reduce the risk of product release, and the adverse consequences of a train derailment."

Bruce Campbell, the author of a book on the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec, wonders why there have not been new regulations limiting the weight and amount of oil trains.

"The Lac-Mégantic train had 72 cars. Those that are derailing now have over 100 cars," Campbell said.

Will the public be involved in the ministry's rail safety review?

Maybe? Transport Canada wasn't clear in its response.

"Transport Canada officials will engage with those required to bring about effective safety measures," Rivet said.

Campbell isn't counting on it.

"Looks like there will be no consultation outside Transport Canada and the industry," Campbell said. "Will the workers be consulted?"

Are rail companies advised ahead of time of inspections?

Yes, Rivet said, for a simple reason.

"It would be deemed too dangerous to conduct surprise track inspections because of the train movement along various tracks," Rivet said. "Schedules can vary greatly and it is with the safety of inspectors in mind that coordination with rail company is required."

Transport Canada sometimes needs help from railway employees during inspections, Rivet added.

Transport Canada conducts inspections using one of 10 track assessment vehicles (TAVs) located across the country.

"A TAV is a road-rail vehicle mounted with sensors that complements and supports the rail safety inspector's visual track inspection," Rivet said. "This high-technology equipment measures certain track parameters and provides continuous live readings and notifies the inspector when measured parameters are beyond the regulated requirements."

Have there been other recent oil train derailments in Canada?

At least one, yes. On Feb. 18 — 12 days after the second Guernsey derailment — a Canadian National (CN) Railway train jumped the tracks near Emo, Ontario, spilling an unspecified amount of crude oil from five tank cars. Six homes were evacuated.

The Ontario incident recalled the Guernsey derailments in two ways, besides the fact that the train derailed:

  • The train was travelling at 70.8 km/hr, compared to the Guernsey train speeds of 72 km/hr and 68 km/hr, respectively.
  • 31 cars derailed, compared to the 33 cars and 32 cars in the Guernsey crashes.

The TSB is investigating the Ontario crash too.

A CN Rail train recently derailed near Emo, Ontario. A similar amount of tank cars derailed there compared to the number of cars that jumped the tracks during the Saskatchewan incidents. (CN Rail)

The type of tank car that broke open and leaked product during second Guernsey derailment — codenamed TC-117 — was touted by Transport Canada as the industry standard in terms of puncture resistance following Lac-Mégantic.

The TSB has said the performance of those cars has garnered "significant" industry interest. Trinity Rail, a company that manufactures the cars, has confirmed it is proactively monitoring the situation.

CBC News recently asked CN Rail twice what type of cars it was using during the Feb. 18 Emo, Ontario, incident. The company did not provide an answer.

Americans are watching

The derailments in Canada are on the radar screens of American railway companies, according to Railway Age, a longstanding trade journal centered on the United States' railway industry.

As the journal pointed out in a piece last week, "In many cases, those unit trains of Canadian crude travel far greater distances in the U.S. than they do in Canada, heading to refineries or offloading terminals as far south as California, Texas and Louisiana."

Unlike Canada, however, U.S. railway regulators have not asked companies to slow down their speeds, the journal reported.

About the Author

Story tips and ideas welcomed at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

with files from Dave Seglins

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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