May 20th, 2014
City officials are seeking tighter safety rules for development near railroad tracks that carry thousands of cars loaded with dangerous goods through the heart of Toronto.
The planners who mull applications to build hundreds of residential units along the Canadian Pacific rail line, which runs along Dupont St., have little data about what moves along those tracks — that information is secret.
But a recently released consultants’ report recommended a number of safety measures for new developments, such as setbacks, fences and berms to stop or slow a derailed train before it crashed into buildings.
Neither railway companies nor the federal government will divulge information publicly on dangerous goods moved through communities, arguing it would create a security threat.
New federal rules now require industry to provide emergency responders with historical data on what’s been transported through a municipality. Canada’s largest two rail carriers, Canadian National and CP, have said they already supply that data upon request.
But that information, meant to assist in planning for disaster, is strictly confidential and can’t be shared with other municipal departments, such as planning.
“Our planners need this information to be able to plan in an informed way,” said city councillor Josh Matlow, whose Ward 22 brushes up against the north side of the CP tracks that run along Dupont from the Junction neighbourhood before swinging north near the Don Valley.
“What’s the point of going through an exercise and hiring a consultant to talk about how to protect a neighbourhood and what kind of infrastructure and what kind of buildings should be built … without even knowing what could be impacting those buildings in the first place?”
A Star investigation into what dangerous goods are moved along the rail line revealed more than 100 tanker cars carrying crude oil, as well as radioactive material and some of the world’s most toxic chemicals, in just two 12-hour periods.
There are a handful of mixed-use developments, including buildings that would house hundreds of residential units, proposed along the Dupont rail corridor, said Ward 19 councillor Mike Layton.
For example, there is currently a proposal to build two, 13-storey buildings on Dupont St. beside the rail line that would house nearly 400 residential units, along with retail and office space.
Jamie McEwan, a manager in the city’s planning department, said planners don’t necessarily need details about what dangerous goods are transported along the corridor to make appropriate decisions, pointing out that railways themselves don’t have the power to refuse cargo.
“We have to just assume that there are dangerous goods and plan accordingly,” said McEwan.
Under federal regulations, rail companies must transport cargo, dangerous or otherwise, so long as they are in an approved container.
The city is in the process of studying the Dupont St. area and will come up with ways to lessen the risk posed by the rail line in any redevelopment that takes place. Development along the corridor is on hold until the study is complete.
Toronto’s planning department commissioned rail safety experts to review safety of the railway line on Dupont St. from Ossington Ave. to Kendal Ave. and suggest ways to mitigate the risk.
In a recent community presentation, consultants from New Jersey-headquartered engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald recommended that any new “principal” development — meaning occupied buildings where people live, work or shop — have a 30-metre setback zone between the structure and the edge of the railroad property. The “distance buffer” would allow people more time to escape in the event of a derailment.
The consultants also called for a minimum 2.5-metre high dirt berm, topped with a 3-metre noise wall, in the setback zone to stop, or slow, a derailed train.
If approved, the standards — already nationally recognized — would only apply to new developments. The report is due for more rounds of community and staff consultation before recommendations will go to committee, likely in late summer.
Councillor Layton, who has supported Toronto council motions calling on the federal government to examine re-routing options and to disclose dangerous goods travelling by rail through the city, said the measures proposed represent “a precautionary approach.”
“I certainly thought they were more restrictive than what has been proposed by a lot of developers,” said Layton.
National railroads such as CP are under federal jurisdiction, leaving the city few options to control the movement of dangerous goods.
In the wake of the Lac-Megantic train derailment and explosion last July that killed 47 people, Transport Canada has issued a slew of safety orders but has stopped short of having a debate about re-routing dangerous goods around major population centres.
The safety measures proposed left many of the 100-plus people who attended the presentation disappointed.
Patricia Lai, a mother of three who lives near the CP line, said dangerous goods simply have no place so near people’s homes.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that’s acceptable is to get them out of people’s yards,” said Lai, co-founder of the Safe Rail Communities group that is petitioning the federal government to re-route trains, among other demands.
“We don’t want it through any community.”
Councillor Matlow, who has formed a community liaison group to address rail safety issues, called the recommendations “interesting — eye-rollingly interesting.”
“We’d like to see a genuine effort to look at alternate ways to move hazardous cargo and try to avoid the densely populated communities,” said Matlow.
The Dupont St. corridor is a vital part of CP’s rail network, connecting the west and central provinces to the east.
About 40 trains travel it daily with an average of 125 cars. There have been 18 derailments in Toronto over the past 30 years, one of which involved dangerous goods in a rail yard.
CP has said it is not considering any re-routing options.
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