Time to reconsider placement of rail lines


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The best time for this discussion would have been 10 or more years ago. The second best time is right now.

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The best time for this discussion would have been 10 or more years ago. The second best time is right now.

Last week, a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed while moving over the McPhillips Street rail overpass in Winnipeg. Twelve cars carrying bitumen (an asphalt oil product) left the track, with one of the fully loaded cars hanging precariously over the edge of the bridge.

The derailment occurred during the height of morning rush hour traffic and could have easily caused far more damage than it did. Homes and businesses were evacuated as a precaution but were allowed to return later in the day because the bitumen in the cars was not easily flammable and was not leaking.

The fact the derailment did not result in spills or injuries is solely a matter of luck. If the derailed tankers had contained oil or any number of dangerous chemicals that are regularly shipped via rail tanker cars, the situation would have likely been far worse. Indeed, we need only recall the massive damage caused by the recent derailment of 38 rail cars in East Palestine, Ohio, or the 47 lives lost in the Lac Megantic derailment in 2013, to understand what could have happened in such a highly populated and congested area of Winnipeg.

That terrifying possibility has revived discussions over rail line relocation in Winnipeg. The idea of moving the lines has been discussed since at least the 1960s, with cost estimates of $1 billion or more. In 2016, the Selinger NDP government promised to conduct a study to examine the feasibility of relocating Winnipeg’s rail lines, but the study was cancelled a few months later by the Pallister government.

Last week’s derailment — and the damage that could have occurred — appears to have changed minds, however. Last Friday, Premier Heather Stefanson told reporters the derailment should revive consideration of the issue. “When something like this happens, you know, you’re thankful that no one got injured, but it does bring it to the forefront,” she said.

Liberal MP and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal added: “Since my time on Winnipeg council, I have been advocating for the relocating of the rail lines outside of the city. While this incident could have been much worse, this is further evidence that the relevant parties need to come together and address this issue.”

The possibility of relocating rail lines in Winnipeg is warranted, but the same factors and the same risks that necessitate that discussion are also present here in Brandon.

Brandon owes its existence to rail traffic — it’s location was chosen by CP planners more than a century ago — but the city is now bisected by CP (now known as CPKCR since its merger with Kansas City Southern) and CN tracks. As in Winnipeg, Brandon’s rail lines hinder traffic flows and threaten response times for emergency services.

Vast amounts of dangerous cargo moves through the city each day, often at considerable speed. Several children and adults have been killed over the years while crossing or playing near the tracks.

Another significant concern is that the Brandon Regional Health Centre, the only major hospital between Winnipeg and Regina, is located just 20 metres from the CN rail line. Long trains of tanker cars carrying highly combustible Bakken oil — the kind that caused such carnage in Lac Megantic — regularly roll past our hospital, putting that vital facility, and the lives of the people inside it, in jeopardy.

Moving the CP rail line and yard in Brandon would have made sense a decade ago, before hundreds of millions of tax dollars were spent on the new First Street and Daly bridges. Doing so at that time would have freed up many acres of land that could have been used for housing, recreation, commercial development and downtown revitalization. And it would have dramatically reduced the volume of dangerous goods passing through the city.

It’s likely too late to move the CP line, but the opportunity still remains to consider the relocation of the CN line and yard. Doing so would also free up land for other uses, it would end the inconvenience of CN trains blocking traffic each day and, most importantly, it would dramatically reduce the risk to our hospital, its staff and patients.

It’s an opportunity that must be considered during any future discussion of rail relocation in our province.

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