For every 100 rail cars that pass through Hamilton, at least seven of them have hazardous material that can explode, spill or seep into the water table, shows new data obtained by Hamilton’s fire department.

Seven per cent of the national rail cars have hazardous material, including gasoline, chlorine and sulfuric acid. Of that seven per cent, 64 per cent are flammable materials such as diesel fuel and crude oil. Nine per cent of that seven per cent is corrosive material such as ammonium nitrate. At least nine freight trains travel through Hamilton per day.

The fire department got the hazardous material information in November, when Transport Canada ordered Canada’s rail lines to release historic data on what cars are carrying through Hamilton and other cities. The city will get that data four times a year, said Fire Chief Rob Simonds.

It’s not as good as real-time data, which Canada’s fire chiefs are pushing for. But it helps the city plan how it would handle disasters such as the one in Lac Mégantic, Que.

“We’re going to be looking for gaps — anything that’s transported that we haven’t anticipated from a pre-planning perspective,” he said.

Last July, a freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the small town of Lac Mégantic, killing 47 people and destroying much of the downtown.

Information is not public

In November, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs met with Transport Canada to ask for historic data. Within a week, they received it. The information isn’t public because it could fall into dangerous hands, Simonds said.

“As you can appreciate, there are some people who ought not to have this.”

The association continues to push for real-time data, Simonds said. If there is a derailment, real-time data would enable firefighters to identify the issue immediately and respond.

It’s crucial that firefighters know what substance they’re dealing with, he said. Some hazardous substances are gaseous and disperse in the atmosphere, while others are liquid and seep into the water table.

The Plastimet factory fire of 1997 is an example of that. The fire broke out in Hamilton’s industrial north end and released dioxin and other toxic chemicals in the city’s air and water. It burned for four days and was visible from as far as Niagara Falls.

Real-time data could be 'dangerous'

The quarterly data doesn’t include how many cars travel through Hamilton, but Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway don’t account for all of them, Simonds said. Hamilton-based Southern Ontario Railway also has 111 kilometres of rail line, some of which runs through the city.

The fire department is talking to the company about getting the data, Simonds said.

“That’s absolutely a key consideration.”

CN estimates about four freight trains travel through Hamilton each day, not including trains that operate within the city limits. About five Canadian Pacific freight trains travel through Hamilton per day.

Providing real-time data could jeopardize client confidentiality, and be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands, spokesperson Jim Feeny said.

Council will vote on this soon

But in an emergency, fire departments can call CN and get that information "very, very quickly," Feeny said. 

Canadian Pacific also gives that information in an emergency, spokesperson Ed Greenberg said. "If there's an incident, a response strategy kicks in and that information flows." 

But Coun. Sam Merulla says that's not good enough. Contacting the company just adds another delay. 

"By that time, we should already have the crews there at the site combating the fire as opposed to trying to find out what they’re dealing with."

Merulla will introduce a motion at a future council meeting that the city write to Transport Canada asking for real-time data.

Voices from Lac-Megantic