It was a year ago Sunday when a runaway train carrying volatile crude slammed into the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in a fiery explosion, killing 47 people and destroying 40 buildings.

Looking back, Halton Hills deputy fire Chief Harry Olivieri says, "it was not just a railway accident. It was an event that ... basically took the community of Lac-Mégantic and turned it upside down."

For many small towns and cities across this country, the rail catastrophe brought into stark awareness the dangers of living alongside a railway line, and of what little they knew about some of the goods travelling through their communities.

"The unfortunate occurrence of Lac-Mégantic has raised the issue and made communities open their eyes to the information that needs to be delivered so they can be prepared," said Olivieri.

Months after Lac-Mégantic​, the federal government ordered all rail companies to begin providing communities with an annual report on the type and volume of dangerous goods traversing their areas, broken down by quarter. Towns and cities can sign up to get the data on a yearly basis, on the condition it will be kept confidential. 

Halton Hills, Ont., just west of Toronto, is one of 726 communities across the country that had registered, as of June, with a division of Transport Canada to receive the rail data. More than 200 of the towns were in Ontario, the province with the highest uptake. Quebec and Saskatchewan were also high, with 123 communities each.

Still, that is at least several hundred short of the number of towns and cities situated along rail lines. CP and CN both say their lines pass through more than 1,100 communities.

Before the Lac-Mégantic explosion, Olivieri says firefighters arriving on the scene of an accident could read a label on a rail car to find out the substance contained within; or they could find the information on a manifest in the locomotive cab that listed the goods on board.

But now, emergency responders — at least those from the places that signed up for these new lists — can have a better handle on the types of materials moving through their communities based on what's been transported over the previous year. 

"We now have the information that allows us to immediately start dealing with the incident, without having to wait to make a phone call to someone to get the info," said Olivieri. 

"In emergency planning, the whole idea is being prepared, and then using any information you have to do exercises with staff so that, in the eventuality of an event occurring, everyone is prepared and knows what to do."

Even communities that thought they knew everything about the dangerous goods within their borders are benefiting from the hazardous materials data.

Kevin Clifford, the fire chief in Saint John, N.B., describes his town as having "an assortment of hazards." The town features a nearby nuclear power plant, a liquefied natural gas facility, a natural gas pipeline, a port and Canada's largest oil refinery —one of the destinations of the volatile U.S. crude that exploded in Lac-Mégantic.

"Because we're an industrial city, [dangerous goods are] on our radar — and we train with industry on a regular basis so we're familiar with the products in our community," said Clifford.

But the 3½-page report he now gets from Transport Canada gives him a breakdown of the products travelling through the community on a quarterly basis. That, says Clifford, will help the fire department shape and schedule its training programs to account for seasonal variations.

"We can change our programs a little bit to be better suited to these probabilities," said Clifford.

Both CN and CP say that for many years they've provided, upon request, a list of the top 25 most common dangerous goods, based on the past year of data, to the local first response agency, to help these groups develop emergency plans.

Last fall, CN says it also began reaching out to communities along its lines to make sure they know who to contact if an incident happens and to offer to conduct training sessions, if requested.

Urgent update needed

Still, the town of Halton Hills, for one, didn't wait for the government order to come into effect this spring.

After Lac-Mégantic, the fire department assigned a worker to begin an exhaustive, two-month project to map the three rail lines — CN, CP and Goderich Exeter — passing through and around their community.

'What really struck me the most was after eight hours of fire, the fire was still going and all they were doing was cooling down the tanks.'- Civil engineer Rosa Galvez-Cloutier

The worker visited railway crossings around town, examining the back of the signs that railway companies use as their own particular route identifiers to add to the town's map.

"It sounds like an onerous task," said Olivieri. "It's not that large of a community, so it didn't take too long."

Today, each fire truck in Halton Hills contains a 100-page binder of maps detailing each rail line and what's nearby. The federally-mandated list of dangerous goods now provided by the rail operators is also helping.

However, civil engineer Rosa Galvez-Cloutier says she doesn't believe enough has changed in the past year to address the lack of emergency response co-ordination that the Lac-Mégantic disaster brought to light.

“Prevention measures, preparedness and emergency plans need to urgently be updated," the Laval University engineer said during a panel discussion held by the Science Media Centre of Canada.

Galvez-Cloutier, who visited Lac-Mégantic in the derailment aftermath, describes firefighters on the scene as overwhelmed. "There was a lot of panic, and there was lack of co-ordination," she said.

"What really struck me the most was after eight hours of fire, the fire was still going and all they were doing was cooling down the tanks. They were not fighting the fire. They were cooling down the tanks so they don't explode."

Part of the problem, said Galvez-Cloutier, was the lack of information about the exact composition of the oil burning — a key bit of information that helps emergency responders determine how to handle a fire.

Lessons learned

Still, communities like Saint John and Halton Hills applaud the changes made in the past year. 

Based on Transportation Safety Board (TSB) recommendations, the federal government's ordered operators to retrofit or phase out the DOT-111, the general purpose tank car designed in the 1970s and that is often used to carry crude, by 2017. An estimated 28,700 DOT-111 cars are currently in use across North America. 

lac-megantic-train

The 72-car train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

More has been learned about the shale oil from the Bakken formation stretching across North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In early March, the TSB said that, based on samples taken from tank cars that didn't derail in Lac-Mégantic, the crude ignited at a lower temperature, making it closer to unleaded gasoline.

There have also been new guidelines clarifying how to secure rolling stock, and rail companies are exploring new technologies to find better ways of detecting problems in tracks, which have been under increased strain in recent years because of massive increase in the amount of oil transported on them.

Other changes are in the works. 

As of September, companies transporting crude oil, diesel, gasoline and some other petroleum products must have "emergency response assistance plans," or ERAPs. These requires shippers and importers to provide specialized equipment, like the foam used to fight the raging Lac-Mégantic fire, as well as technical experts to communities along the rail route.

Those ERAPs are probably the "most challenging piece" of the emergency response improvements, says Clifford, and the most important.

Clifford says that change will give communities access to those specialty teams that can manipulate the train cars, unload or transfer products and generally help the first responders, even though it might take hours for them to arrive.

Railway safety in Canada has steadily improved in the past decade. In 2012, freight rail moved a record amount of goods and experienced the lowest rate of accidents to date, notes Bill Hjelholt, director of freight rail at engineering firm AECOM.

But Halton Hills' Olivieri says the Lac-Mégantic tragedy was a seminal event for emergency responders.

"By learning about what occurred there that day," he said, we can "hope that it never happens ever again."