Rail tanker car guidelines announced by Canada, U.S.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada's Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt announced new harmonized guidelines for rail tanker cars Friday morning in Washington, in part to deal with the lessons learned from the Lac-Mégantic tragedy of July 2013 and with the 4,000 per cent increase in crude oil shipments by rail in recent years.

Experts say reinforced tanker cars are not enough to avoid future disasters

The DOT-111 train cars will be phased out by the end of April 2017, seven months ahead of the Americans. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada's Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt announced new harmonized guidelines for rail tanker cars Friday morning in Washington, in part to deal with the lessons learned from the Lac-Mégantic tragedy of July 2013 and to deal with the 4,000 per cent increase in crude oil shipments by rail in recent years.

"We can never undo the damage that took place in Lac-Mégantic or in any other railway incident," said Raitt, referring to the loss of 47 lives when an improperly secured train full of crude oil dislodged from a hilltop perch and rolled into in the small Quebec town and exploded.

"But we can and we must learn from those events and improve our system."

Mark Winfield, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, says Transport Canada established new regulations for tanker cars last year, only to do it again this year. 

"It sort of begs the question — how on top of the situation is [Transport Canada]?" he asked. "We're sort of in the situation of doing a re-do."

The announcement to phase out the DOT-111 tanker cars involved in the Lac-Mégantic came last year, but the successor cars, the CPC-1232s, were easily breached in accidents on Feb. 14 and March 7 of this year near Gogama, Ont.

The new guidelines for tankers include a thicker steel wall and jacketed cars with thermal protection.

Both countries have already made announcements about reductions in train speeds for crude oil trains going through urban centres, and tank car manufacturers have already been building cars to new specifications.

The joint press conference was about establishing harmonized rules for trains that regularly cross the U.S.-Canada border, but Foxx also came out strongly in favour of mandating electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on tank cars, which Canada failed to include in its new guidelines. 

A CN train carrying crude oil derailed March 7, near Gogama, Ont., about 200 kilometres north of Sudbury. (Ontario Provincial Police/Canadian Press)

The new braking system is also a move the railway industry is fighting, despite its successful use by the railways BSNF and Norfolk Southern in the U.S., said Foxx. 

Foxx said the broad application of electronically controlled brake technology "is an incredibly important safety factor. Just imagine these unit trains — sometimes a hundred or more cars linked together — having an accordion-like collision with each other, and making a bad situation worse." He said the U.S. is being "strident" in implementing the braking system to contain the scale of a mishap.

When asked by CBC News about Canada's attitude to the braking technology, Raitt said, "We did have a trial run of it with a railway in Canada. There were difficulties with implementing it, either our geography or weather or something like that," but she has instructed government and industry officials in Canada to work with the Americans to "find a Canadian solution" to the new braking rule.

Raitt was proud that Canada would phase out the DOT-111 cars from the country's tank car network by the end of April 2017, seven months ahead of the Americans. The rest of the older tankers carrying crude oil must be phased out by 2020, and all tank cars carrying flammable or explosive goods must be up to the latest standards by 2025.

Canada's leading expert on rail tank cars, Jean-Pierre Gagnon, has told CBC News that even the most heavily reinforced tank car can be breached in violent accidents. The former Transport Canada superintendent of rail tank car standards and regulations said other measures — such as reducing the speed of trains, better braking systems and more emphasis on the conditions of rail cars and tracks themselves — must be given priority in order to avoid future catastrophes.

At the press conference, Raitt said she did issue an emergency "slow order" directive after CN Rail's two derailments near Gogama, Ont., which released millions of litres of crude oil into the environment, either by fire or migration into water systems. She also had CN representatives in front of a parliamentary committee, asking them what they're doing in terms of track inspections. 

Winfield suggests the government could exert a stronger influence over rail companies by making executives personally liable for catastrophic accidents, facing not only fines but jail time.

"We've seen that happen in the environmental field and it had a catalytic effect on the way environmental matters were dealt with inside of companies," he said.

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