CBC Investigates

Londoners living near railway tracks say real-time data, not reports, needed for safety

CBC London released for the first time two reports provided by Canadian Pacific and Canadian National outlining an aggregated list of dangerous material travelling through the city in 2016.

'I just don't see a tough regulatory regime here. I see a let-the-railroads-take-care-of-it attitude'

Community organizer Gil Warren stands at the CP tracks on William Street in London, Ont. His home is just 25 metres away. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Every three hours, Gil Warren sees at least one train go by his London home built alongside one of the two main railway lines running through the city's downtown core.

The disaster in Lac Mégantic is always on his mind, he explains as he considers the risks that could come with tankers of dangerous materials passing so close.

"We don't even know what's on these trains in terms of the vast array of chemicals," Warren said pointing to the daycare that sits about 10 meters from the track.

Gil Warren, a rail safety advocate in London, Ont. talks about his concerns when it comes to safety on the rails in his neighbourhood. 0:57

Today, Warren and other Londoners have a clearer picture.

A CBC London investigation led to a first-time release of two reports provided by Canadian Pacific (CP) and Canadian National (CN) outlining an aggregated list of dangerous material traveling through the city in 2016.

London officials were unaware it could be made public and refused to release it until CBC London filed a freedom of information request.

Today on CBC's London Morning, Mayor Matt Brown committed to posting that information on the City of London website. 

Londoners join call for real-time data

The reports show 10 per cent of CP train cars are shipping dangerous goods, while CN cars carry almost 14 per cent.

The reports are used by municipalities to help guide emergency plans, with London having created one specific to railroad disasters.

If there is a derailment or leak, London's first responders must call a hotline or use a smartphone app to see the type of dangerous materials on the affected train.

"We need real-time data for the first-responders," said Helen Vassilakos, co-founder of Safe Rail Communities, a non-partisan advocacy group. "If an explosion were to happen, they can't read the placard on the side of the tanker."

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The last major derailment in Ontario saw fires burn for three days when 29 CN tankers derailed spilling more than one million litres of crude near the northern community of Gogama in 2015.

Another CN train derailed near the city of Georgina, located north of Toronto, in March of this year though no one was injured and no hazardous materials were spilled.

The head of London's emergency management department admits real-time data would be good in a derailment situation but is not necessary.

"There will always be limitations to what we know," Dave O'Brien said. "The direct observations of our first responders on the ground, and the protocols that we would follow as a result of what they're seeing, are really the most important."

The closest Londoners could come to real-time data on the type and quantity of dangerous goods moving through the city is to watch the trains and read the placards on the side of the tankers.

The city has also launched Alert London, an emergency notification system that allows Londoners to sign up for information about evacuations and other emergencies.

Railway companies proud of safety records

CBC London made multiple requests for interviews with CP and CN to discuss community concerns surrounding the transportation of dangerous goods but only received written statements.

"There is constant training for first responders who would have to respond to a disaster," the email statement from CP said, noting the safe transport of all goods is a daily priority.

"We make significant investments every year to maintain a safe operation through our top-notch training, technology and infrastructure improvements," wrote a CN spokesperson.  

The Railway Association of Canada (RAC), which represents 50 freight and passenger railway companies in the country and lobbies government on their behalf, said the industry is proud of its safety records.

"We want to make sure that first responders have all the tools in the toolbox," said Andy Ash, director of dangerous goods for RAC.

For Warren, whose home is 25 metres from the CP tracks, real-time data for first-responders would bring peace of mind.

"Neither the police or the fire department know what they're dealing with until they call a hotline?" he said reiterating calls for real-time reporting.

"We're talking about a vast array of chemicals," he said, "this is a public safety need."