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Rail safety improving despite recent derailments, says expert

Rail traffic is actually getting safer despite a second high profile train derailment west of Edmonton in two weeks, says a transportation expert.

Derailment numbers dropping each year across the country

Investigators and workers go over the scene where a CN train derailed west of Edmonton near Peers, Alberta, on Sunday, November 3, 2013. Thirteen cars derailed early Sunday morning, with 12 carrying lumber and one carrying sulphur dioxide. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Rail traffic is actually getting safer despite a second train derailment west of Edmonton in two weeks, says a transportation expert.

While the public is hearing about derailments more now, the number of derailments has actually gone down over the last 10 years, says Barry Prentiss, who teaches at the University of Manitoba School of Business.

"Things are going in the right direction," he said.

There are about 400 derailments a year in Canada with half of those occurring away from the main lines, he said.

Shipping materials by train is still relatively safe, he said.

"I always ask people well what's the alternative — the railway moves a tremendous amount of goods and yes we have a few derailments every so often, but it's much safer than moving things by truck and of course we don't have many other alternatives," he said.

On Sunday 13 CN cars went off the tracks near Peers, west of Edmonton, spilling their loads of lumber.

Two weeks earlier, a CN train carrying oil products left the tracks 90 kilometres away at Gainford, followed by an explosion and fire that forced residents from their homes for days.

Both incidents occurred on the same rail line.

However, the Transportation Safety Board has deemed the Peers incident an “occurrence” which doesn’t require an independent investigation.

But NDP MP Linda Duncan believes that every incident should merit a TSB probe as well as an environmental assessment.

“We have environmental assessment for major pipelines but there’s no environmental impact assessment for this kind of increased trafficking along rail lines,” she said.

Rail transportation is regulated by the federal government but derailments must be reported to the province.

Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver has asked his department to ensure the rail companies have met their obligations.

“We’ve heard complaints from municipal leaders about not adequate information and not full enough  information and we take those concerns seriously,” he said.

“And we are following up on those with our federal partners and the railroads themselves.

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