Gogama derailment: Stronger tanker cars not the only answer, expert says

Canada's leading expert on the tanker cars involved in the two CN train derailments and fires near Gogama, Ont., says there is "no miracle solution" to preventing catastrophic accidents.

Train accidents can be 'extremely violent,' and thicker steel won't necessarily prevent spills and fires

New standards for tanker cars are coming, but it's not yet clear how quickly the rail fleet will be updated. Fires from Saturday's derailment near Gogama, Ont., were still burning on Monday. (Transportation Safety Board)

Jean-Pierre Gagnon, a leading expert on the tanker cars involved in the two CN train derailments and fires near Gogama, Ont., says there is "no miracle solution" to preventing catastrophic accidents.

Gagnon, who was Transport Canada's superintendent in charge of rail tank car regulations and standards before being laid off prior to the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, says even the most heavily reinforced tank car can be breached. 

"Accidents can be extremely violent events," says Gagnon, who worked for 30 years with tanker cars and the movement of dangerous goods. "It’s not just a matter of speed, but how the cars pile up, and if there’s a rail pointing out like spear, and the car is at the right angle and goes into it, it’s going to be breached.

"As spectacular as these accidents are, the cars might have done their job."

The DOT-111 tanker cars involved in the Lac-Mégantic fire are being phased out, but the industry standard is an upgrade that Gagnon worked on — the CPC-1232 tanker — the type used in both Gogama accidents on Feb. 14 and March 7. More than 110,000 litres of crude oil can be carried per car, and more than four million litres has escaped during the two accidents, either burning or leaking into the environment.

The changes that led to the CPC-1232 tanker were incremental, said Gagnon, and influenced by past recommendations by Canada's Transportation Safety Board and its American equivalent. New standards are in the process of being completed, he added, but that is the way Transport Canada has historically worked.

"Accidents drive change," said Gagnon, who had feared a Lac-Mégantic-like disaster and was not totally surprised when it happened. "You can't make changes to 100,000 tank cars based on potential problems."

New tanker car standards coming within months

New standards for tanker cars carrying crude oil are due by May 12 in the U.S., which usually works in conjunction with Canada on standards, said American tanker car expert Jim Rader. But even with new standards coming in, he said, the problem will be turning over the current fleet of tanker cars.

"Most manufacturers today are already building a 9/16-inch-thick car with jackets and thermal protection," said Rader, who has worked with tanker cars for more than 40 years and is now a senior vice-president with Watco Apply Change Services. "We're pretty confident we know what the final rules are going to be.

"What we don’t know is how do you handle the existing fleet?"

Not all the existing cars are easily retrofitted — adding extra safety measures might make them too long, high or wide. And if the Canadian and U.S. authorities mandate that all cars must meet the new standard in three years, "it cripples the economy," said Rader.

If the governments allow a 10-year timetable to replace the fleet, that is "likely too long. Somewhere in between is ideal, and people in the industry hope it will be a phased-in retrofit period, retrofitting the high-risk cars first, and then the ones less of a concern.

"We don’t know how it will unfold. We need a crystal ball."

Other safety measures

Gagnon said the knee-jerk reaction is that the tank cars should be made safer by making the steel walls thicker, as thick as the ones that carry propane.

"You need to understand how they work in a fire, which is almost another science in itself," said Gagnon. "On the other hand, maybe we need to focus more on other parts of the equation — preventing accidents or derailments, or make sure their violence is reduced."

He suggests reducing the speed of trains, better braking systems, and more emphasis on the condition of the track and maintenance of the cars. 

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