COLUMN: Rail safety should always come first

Railways need to protect against potential disaster

The final report of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) into the Lac-Mégantic rail tragedy, which killed 47 residents of the quiet Quebec town last July, is a damning indictment of both Transport Canada and the poorly-run Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway.

Together, their indifferent attitude towards safety led to what the TSB report describes as 18 “factors” which came together to create the horrific tragedy.

Could such a thing happen here? Could there be a series of factors which would cause a catastrophic incident in Surrey, White Rock or Delta?

There is no doubt that rail traffic in the area is on the increase. Roberts Bank in Delta is the single biggest reason — its business is booming, and there are plans for further expansion. Right now, coal and containers are being shipped overseas, almost exclusively to Asia, from the port.

Business increases on the coal side are partially due to a lack of coal shipping facilities on the U.S. west coast. Plans for coal ports have run into opposition in many areas, and the campaign against a planned coal transhipping facility at Fraser Surrey Docks is symbolic of problems U.S. coal shippers are having.

The U.S. government is also trying to reduce the amount of electricity generated by coal. Meanwhile, BNSF, which runs through White Rock, Surrey and Delta, is sending several coal trains a day to Roberts Bank.

Crude oil is also being shipped here, although not in the unit trains like the one that piled up at Lac-Mégantic.

Both BNSF and CN regularly haul crude through this area, usually in smaller lots of 10 to 12 cars per train. Most is likely going to refineries in Burnaby or Northwest Washington.

The attitude of Transport Canada towards rail-safety practices, as outlined in the TSB report, is a concern.

This agency is supposed to be the overseer of rail and other forms of transportation, yet apparently leaves it up to those companies to police themselves. MMA didn’t meet a number of deadlines and requests Transport Canada had set, and faced no consequences. Even the single-person operation of trains, a possible factor in the disaster, was implemented by MMA in 2012 without Transport Canada stepping in as a hands-on regulator.

Transport Canada was cited by the Auditor General in November, 2013 (after Lac-Mégantic) for not having a proper audit approach to ensure that railways were managing safety risks and complying with safety requirements.

Recently, Transport Canada got very particular about access to the beach area in White Rock, in what appeared to be an over-reaction.

It wouldn’t hurt the agency to apply more of that hard-headedness to ensuring that railways follow the safety regulations they are supposed to have in place.

One of the themes that comes through quite clearly in the TSB report is the lack of attention to safety practices on many levels at MMA.

It is safe to say that the four railways operating in this area – Canadian Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian National and Southern Railway of B.C. – are much more safety-conscious. Because of that, it isn’t too likely that the many factors which led to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy will re-occur here.

However, sometimes it only takes one or two factors to cause a major problem. In two cases in the past 30 years, vandals derailed trains of B.C. Hydro Railway (Southern Railway’s predecessor) in Newton. Trains cannot stop easily, and both derailments caused significant property damage.

Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt in either.

The railways that operate in Surrey, Delta and White Rock need to take a strong role in demonstrating an emphasis on safety to the community, in particular local governments and first responders, but also citizens at large.

Rail transport is a vital and important part of economic activity, but it must be conducted with a “safety first” attitude at all times.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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