September 26, 2014
GO Transit doesn’t know the details of dangerous goods being moved on tracks alongside its passenger trains, the Star has learned.
Nor was the transit agency certain of its role or capabilities during a potential disaster when the Star inquired earlier this year about rail safety and what is being hauled on its rail corridors.
In emails that circulated among GO officials in March about how to respond to the Star’s questions — emails disclosed by Metrolinx this week — one official suggested saying the transit agency is “aware in a broad sense” of the goods moved on its lines.
GO Transit president Greg Percy weighed in, writing, “if we say ‘aware in a broad sense’ we are saying we don’t know — which is actually true since we don’t receive a train manifest.
“We need to say we know when and where freight drop-offs and pick-ups are made on railway sidings on our rail corridor network, and we know when freight consists (train sections) regularly have tank cars, but in the absence of receiving a train manifest, we don’t know the actual contents of the tank cars.”
More than six months after the Star’s initial queries, that hasn’t changed, Metrolinx confirmed. It noted that dangerous-goods shipments are regulated by and reported to Transport Canada.
The rail companies that move those goods — Canadian National and Canadian Pacific — are federally regulated. Metrolinx doesn’t move any freight.
Metrolinx has steadily purchased rail corridors throughout the GTA, and now owns more than 500 kilometres of track designated for both freight and passenger service. On a typical weekday, GO Transit moves 187,000 people on rail lines, the agency’s website says. This week Metrolinx announced it had purchased from CN a section of the Kitchener rail line.
As part of those purchase agreements, many of the previous freight schedules are grandfathered in, allowing former owners to continue to move cargo on the lines.
Both CN and CP are steadfast in their refusal to release information publicly on dangerous goods travelling through communities, despite increasing pressure in the wake of the train disaster in Lac-Megantic in July, 2013, that killed 47 people. The railroads argue that disseminating that information would represent a security threat and potentially harm commercial interests. Each tanker car carrying dangerous goods is clearly marked with a four-digit number, however, identifying the substance inside.
New rules from Transport Canada released late last year now require railroads to provide municipalities’ emergency responders with historical data on dangerous goods to allow better emergency planning. CN and CP have stressed they already supplied that information upon request. Officials who receive it are sworn to secrecy.
Metrolinx redacted information on goods moved on its corridors in the emailed released to the Star under a freedom of information request, citing a section of the legislation that allows for the removal of third-party information.
Emails dated in May indicated Metrolinx would try to obtain historical information similar to that provided to municipal emergency officials; to date, it has not, the agency confirmed.
In emails sent in March, Percy suggested GO needed to ensure that Transport Canada inspects cargo trains on Metrolinx-owned rail corridors; ensure its incident responders have dangerous-goods certification; and confirm its regulatory obligations, rights and risks as a host carrier for dangerous goods.
He also suggested hiring a dangerous-goods consultant to review the agency’s procedures.
A review of procedures, including bringing in an auditor, began over the summer to “determine if any (procedures) can be strengthened,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins.
Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow, an outspoken critic of the secrecy surrounding dangerous-goods shipments by rail through the city, called it “truly remarkable” that Metrolinx wouldn’t know about dangerous goods moved on tracks shared with its passenger trains.
“I find it shocking that after such a horrible tragedy as Lac-Megantic that Metrolinx never sought to inquire what dangerous goods are moved on its corridors,” Matlow said.
In a statement sent to the Star on Wednesday, Percy said GO Transit “has sought clear direction from Transport Canada on its obligations as a host carrier for freight railroads. Transport Canada has confirmed that the onus is on the freight carrier and shipper to ensure that all dangerous goods safety protocols are adhered to.”
Freight companies are responsible for accident containment and management of any incident involving their trains, wrote Percy.
Should a dangerous-goods carrier not be in compliance with federal regulations, Metrolinx retains the right to take action such as preventing use of its rail lines.
CP spokesperson Breanne Feigel said the railroad’s right to use Metrolinx’s corridor is not part of its daily freight service but rather an option in one-off circumstances that might require short-term re-routing.
Mark Hallman, a CN spokesperson, said the company retains transportation rights on tracks it has sold to Metrolinx in the GTA. CN is responsible for any incidents involving its trains; it also provides training to municipal emergency responders along with the now federally required information on dangerous goods cargos.
Patricia Lai, a co-founder of Toronto’s Safe Rail Communities group, said Metrolinx pursuing more knowledge is “a good thing.”
“(But) I don’t think that following the existing rules and regulations is enough,” said Lai, whose group advocates re-routing dangerous goods around residential areas, among other measures.
“Current rules and regulations regarding transport by rail of dangerous goods are not near safe enough. The (Transportation Safety Board’s) final report on Lac-Megantic confirms this.”
That report, released in August, concluded the deadly crash and explosion was the result of several factors, including lax safety rules, mechanical problems and human error. The disaster triggered Transport Canada to release a slew of new rules over the past 15 months.
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