Of the five railcars that derailed and burst into flames in Plaster Rock, N.B., last week, the three newest cars made of thicker steel and built with higher safety standards were damaged less, the company behind the derailment told a rail safety forum in Ottawa on Monday.

“Of the five cars, three were new and they were ‘damaged less’ was the precise phrase I heard from Canadian National,” rail consultant Malcolm Cairns said at a seminar hosted by the Canadian Transportation Research Forum that's looking into safety issues surrounding DOT-111 railcars, which have been involved in numerous high-profile accidents across North American in recent years.

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Safety watchdogs in Canada and the U.S. have for decades warned that the tankers are prone to punctures and broken valves during crashes. Some safety advocates attending Monday’s meeting say Ottawa and Washington need to step in and force the retrofitting or retirement of some 50,000 tanker cars that for years have been identified as being prone to puncture and leaks during derailments.

Industry figures suggest there are as many as 228,000 DOT-111 railcars currently in operation across the U.S., and the Railway Association of Canada says some 160,000 carloads of Canadian crude was shipped across North America on railcars last year.

Transport Canada on Friday announced a proposal for new regulation requiring new rail tank cars built here to be built to a standard currently used in the U.S. But the regulation does not propose any solution for the existing fleet of cars, which were involved in recent derailments such as the one in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that killed dozens of people, or the more recent one in New Brunswick.

“There are so many players — the leasing companies, the shippers, the railways  it’s unlikely you are going to get a very large shift unless there’s government involvement,” said David Jeanes, head of the safety group Transport Action Canada. 

Jeanes said the rapid expansion of crude oil extraction and shipments leaves him concerned over what will happen it Transport Canada does not force industry to move faster to retrofit the existing rail fleet, a job that could cost an estimated $1 billion.

“The demand is such that it would result in more transport by the highway mode, more pipelines, new pipelines would have to be constructed and all of those have safety implications as well," he said.

Changes coming

The industry is publicly in favour of higher standards and upgrades for new and older tankers used to transport flammable liquids. At the forum, however, Freight Management Association of Canada president Bob Ballantye said he’d prefer to leave it up to the industry — not government regulation — to come up with its own standards and timetable.

"It could happen either way,” he told reporters outside the meeting. But he warned that the $1-billion price tag would be passed on to shippers and ultimately consumers of goods shipped by rail. He said it’s not even clear whether railcar manufacturers could tackle the job of retrofitting their entire fleet, or how many years it could take.

“These products need to be moved, because people want the products that are moved in them, and in these quantities. So you can’t just snap your fingers and change the fleet overnight,” Ballantyne said. Transport Canada said on Friday it will continue to examine whether existing DOT-111 rail tank cars should be retrofitted or retired, but has not said when it will make any decision that would be binding on the rail or shipping industries.