Rail safety in B.C. questioned following Quebec tragedy

Following a massive, deadly fire sparked by the derailment of a train in Quebec, questions are being asked about the safety of hazardous goods rail networks in British Columbia.

Freight trains commonly carry dangerous goods across B.C., but details on types and quantities not common knowledge

Freight trains are often used to ship dangerous goods 2:13

Following a massive, deadly fire sparked by the derailment of a train in Quebec, questions are being asked about the safety of hazardous goods rail networks in British Columbia.

Early Saturday morning, a parked train carrying crude oil rolled away and crashed, sparking multiple explosions and a major fire in the community of Lac-Mégantic. Thirteen people have been confirmed dead and around 50 remain missing as of Monday.

The incident has shone the spotlight on the contentious political debate over oil transportation and Canada's rapidly expanding oil-by-rail industry.

Four years ago, just 500 rail car loads of oil were moved by Canadian railways. By the end of this year, it is expected to be more 140,000 loads. In the future, B.C. could see a large chunk of that share.

Earlier this year, newspaper tycoon David Black said although he would prefer a pipeline, Alberta crude could be sent to his proposed refinery in Kitimat by rail.

John Bennett, speaking for the Sierra Club, said the increase of oil shipments by rail could only lead to a predictable, disastrous outcome in light of current safety requirements.

"We've been looking at how we can put pressure on the federal government to improve the safety, but it hasn't taken it seriously and this is the result," Bennett told CBC News.

At least major two rail accidents involving dangerous goods have happened in B.C. in the last eight years.

In 2005, half a million fish were killed in the Cheakamus River after a CN train went off the rails near Squamish, spilling 45,000 litres of sodium hydroxide.

In 2009, CN pleaded guilty to violating the Federal Fisheries Act in that incident. The company was fined $400,000.

In 2007, two CN trains carrying fuel and lumber collided, sparking a massive blaze along the Fraser River near Prince George.

Hazardous goods info not clear

Freight trains commonly carry dangerous goods across B.C., but information on specific items and the amounts hauled is not always easy to confirm.

CN Rail says it doesn't ship oil through B.C. right now. CP Rail, which does, wouldn't tell CBC News what volume of oil or other dangerous goods it currently ships through the province.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which has tracks running up from the United States through White Rock, says it does ship some petroleum products, but wouldn't provide further details. A BNSF spokesperson said the company's trains go slowly and the goods are carried in newer, safer rail cars.

Wayne Baldwin, the mayor of White Rock, B.C., says the Quebec disaster is extremely concerning to his community.

"It's always a concern and has been. Way before we heard about Quebec, of course, there are other accidents that have occurred with rail safety, and it's an ongoing issue," he said.

With files from the CBC's Dan Burritt and Chris Brown