Changes to improve rail safety were announced Wednesday by federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in response to recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

The federal government wants a three-year phase-out or retrofit of older tank cars that are used to transport crude oil or ethanol by rail, but will not implement a key TSB recommendation that rail companies conduct route planning when transporting dangerous goods.

As well, certain tankers that Raitt said are the "least crash-resistant" and have "no continuous reinforcement of their bottom shells" will be removed within 30 days, by ministerial order. There are 5,000 of these cars in North America, she said, but could not give a figure of how many are used in Canada.

Raitt was speaking at a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday to announce the changes.

Rail Safety 20140423

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announces new railway safety measures during a news conference on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

There are 65,000 of the more robust Dot-111 cars in North America that must be phased out or retrofitted within three years if used in Canada, Raitt said, adding, "Officials have advised us three years is doable."  She said she couldn't calculate the cost of the retrofits, but told reporters, "industry will be footing the bill."

The United States will not be following the same three-year period for either the phase-out or retrofit of the tanker cars. Asked by a reporter if tanker cars would have to be switched at the border by 2017, Raitt replied that the industry "can see where this is going" and is already building safer cars.

"This has been a voluntary standard since 2011, and indeed all these cars since 2011 have been built to this standard that we're [now] entrenching in regulation," she told reporters. 

Mandatory emergency response plans

The transport minister also announced that mandatory emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments in Canada. The plans will be mandatory for trains even if they are carrying only a single tank car of crude oil, gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, or ethanol.

Raitt also said railway companies will be required to reduce the speed of trains carrying dangerous goods. The speed limit will be 80 kilometres an hour for key trains, she said. She added that risk assessments will be conducted in certain areas of the country about further speed restrictions, a request that came from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

In addition, she announced the creation of a task force that will be composed of representatives from municipalities, first responders, railways and shippers to work on strengthening emergency response capacity across the country.

There was no mention in Raitt's announcement of a requirement for route planning. Generally, railway companies prefer the shortest routes possible for transporting goods and may have resisted the idea of using less populated routes when carrying dangerous products.

Hoang Mai, the NDP transport critic, pointed out that the TSB asked that rail companies look at options to make sure they don't route through populated areas when carrying flammable material, but "there's no plan from the government on that front."

Mai added that neither is there a plan to ensure that municipalities be informed about trains carrying hazardous goods through their communities.

Problems with the DOT-111 car

DOT-111 rail car

The DOT-111, known as the workhorse of the rail industry, is used to haul hazardous liquids from coast to coast. Ottawa says the cars must be phased out or retrofitted to higher safety standards within three years if they transport dangerous goods. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

The Transportation Safety Board has been pointing out the vulnerabilities of the DOT-111 cars and asking for tougher standards for years, Ian Naish, a former TSB head of rail safety, told CBC News. 

"I just feel badly about the Mégantic situation. It's happened and you can't pull things back from there, but ... there's been a lot of talk over the years, for decades, about beefing up tank cars and nothing was done. But now it is. I'm glad it's being done. But I wish it had been done earlier," he said.

Brian Stevens head of UNIFOR, which represents thousands of unionized rail car inspectors at CN, CP and other Canadian rail companies, called today's announcement a disappointment.

"This announcement really falls short, and lets Canadians down," he told CBC News.

"These DOT-11 cars, they should be banned from carrying crude oil immediately. They can still be used to carry vegetable oil, or diesel fuel, but for carrying this dangerous crude there should be an immediate moratorium and that should have been easy enough for the minister to do and she failed to do that.

"There's a lot of other tank cars in the system that can carry crude," Stevens explained. "There doesn't need to be this reliance on these antiquated cars that are prone to puncture."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, commenting before Raitt's announcement, said the changes are not enough to protect the safety of Canadians now.

"They're going to try and tell us today that they're acting on that [the safety of rail tanker cars] but she's going to try and set a timeline for years from now. What happens in the meantime in all those communities where this very dangerous material is being transported today? That's the real question and she's not going to have an answer for that," he told reporters earlier Wednesday on Parliament Hill.

The head of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities said the government's announcement was a "major step forward in improving the safety of Canada's railways and the communities built around them." Claude Dauphin also praised the "rapid timeline" for ameliorating the safety of the DOT-111 tanker cars.

On Jan. 23, the TSB made three recommendations in response to the Lac-Mégantic explosion last July, in which 47 people were killed after a runaway train carrying oil derailed.

The TSB recommended:

  • Enhanced safety standards for Class 111 tank cars used to transport flammable liquids.
  • Railway companies that transport dangerous goods be required to conduct route planning and analysis.
  • Emergency response assistance plans be in place when large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons are shipped by rail.

The TSB asked the government to respond to its recommendation within 90 days. Raitt's announcement Wednesday meets that deadline.