The fiery derailment of a Canadian Pacific freight train near Guernsey, Sask., on Thursday morning has prompted the federal government to reduce allowed speed limits for all trains carrying large amounts of dangerous goods.
According to a report by The Canadian Press, the CP train was carrying crude oil when it jumped the tracks, and 31 of its 104 cars caught fire, sending huge plumes of thick, black smoke into the air.
Jack Gibney, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Usborne, which includes Guernsey, told the wire service that about 85 residents were evacuated from homes in the agricultural community. Thankfully, the hamlet is surrounded by farmland, and no one was injured as a result of the derailment and resulting fires.
But these kinds of railway incidents are very concerning for any community that lives along a rail route, including here in Brandon.
According to Transport Canada’s website, trains that have cars with one or more loaded tank cars of dangerous goods that are included in Class 2.3, Toxic Gases, or dangerous goods that are toxic by inhalation subject to Special Provision 23 of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations, are known as "key trains."
Under ordinary conditions, rail companies are restricted to running key trains to a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) outside of metropolitan areas, and down to 40 miles per hour (25 km/h) within the core and secondary core of metropolitan areas.
Thursday, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said his order will require trains carrying 20 or more cars of dangerous goods to travel at lower speeds while the crash is investigated.
"That speed reduction will require them to go at no more than 25 miles (40 kilometres) per hour across the country except … 20 miles (32 kilometres) per hour in built-up metropolitan areas," Garneau said in Ottawa. So, half of ordinary operating speeds.
Garneau’s decision no doubt comes out of an abundance of caution for the safety of both rail workers and the communities through which rail lines operate. Such speed reductions also appear to be standard procedure while Transport Canada investigates major derailments of trains carrying dangerous goods.
Almost exactly a year ago, more than one million litres of oil were spilled when an eastbound oil train derailed near St. Lazare. In that particular incident, 37 CN rail cars carrying crude derailed, causing a partial leak of oil onto an area cattle rancher’s pasture. Again, thankfully there were no reports of injuries.
And we only learned last April of an incident in Minnedosa in which a Canadian Pacific Railway train carrying more than 100 cars of grain careened downhill uncontrolled through the town on Jan. 1, 2018. Though this incident did not involve the transportation of dangerous goods, there was concerning information come out of the Transportation Safety Board investigation. It was determined the incident showed that CP staff had been improperly trained.
Statistics Canada reports that fuel oils and crude petroleum are consistently in the list of top commodities, by weight, moved by Canadian railways. Although shipments of oil and gas declined in early 2019, rail exports hit a record high of 327,229 barrels per day in October of 2018 — a 138.5 per cent volume increase over the previous year. That increase also prompted further rail safety concerns.
Minister Garneau said Thursday the reduced speeds will be put into effect for the next 30 days, but that number is not static.
"We could shorten that — we’re looking for the causes to see if there is a common pattern — or we could lengthen it depending on how things are progressing," he said. "I realize there will be an effect on the economy of the country because our trains move important goods across the country, but it is very, very important that we not sacrifice safety."
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, incidents like these do not build public confidence in any stated commitment to railway safety standards. With more and more crude oil being shipped via Canadian railways, it becomes ever more important that rail companies — and our elected officials — make safety a paramount concern.