March 30th, 2014
Train derailment last July turned downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que. into a fireball.
After the Lac-Mégantic disaster last year that took 47 lives and turned a town centre into a fireball, no one ought to take rail safety for granted. And that includes people living in Toronto, where hazardous goods routinely roll through densely populated neighbourhoods in the city core.
Canadians generally have reason to be concerned about the exponential growth in trains carrying crude oil, to cite just one potential hazard. Last year 140,000 carloads rattled along the nation’s rail tracks, up from only 500 five years ago. More than a few ran through midtown Toronto, from the Junction neighbourhood along Dupont St. out east through Scarborough.
Yet as Councillor Josh Matlow told the Star’s Betsy Powell, residents in Canada’s biggest city lack “basic information” about the potential dangers. That’s unacceptable, given the growing volume of traffic in volatile Bakken crude oil, ethanol and other cargo. As Matlow and fellow councillor Adam Vaughan argue, the time has come to shed at least some of the secrecy surrounding hazardous cargo.
This week they plan to put forward a motion asking city council to get serious about lifting the veil, and they deserve a fair hearing.
They want council to ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to require the railways to inform municipalities of the specific nature, volume and frequency of potentially hazardous goods running through city limits — and they want the information made public. “Currently, the railroad industry does not publicly release information on dangerous goods … citing security concerns,” the councillors point out. Ottawa should “put the safety concerns of local residents before commercial needs and require industry transparency.”
They also want council to ask the Harper government to speedily phase out older, less safe tanker cars, and to hold a public consultation on hazardous rail traffic. What’s needed, they argue, is a “meaningful dialogue with local residents before shipping hazardous materials next to our homes, schools, hospitals and daycares.”
This gives Toronto council a chance to express a “sense of city” view of what Ottawa should be doing to reassure the public that it gets the growing concern. Right now that’s not the case.
Recently federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt defended Canadian National and Canadian Pacific for not releasing details about hazardous goods transiting Toronto. While the railways quietly share information about past shipments with municipalities, firefighters and police, there’s no need for a public database, she said, citing security concerns. In fact Transport Canada regulations ensure that information supplied by the railways to municipal emergency planning officials be only on a need-to-know basis, and be kept confidential.
Why? Why shouldn’t the public have access to the same historical data? As the Star has argued before, limiting access to emergency planners and first responders seems excessive secrecy.
No one is suggesting that the railways post detailed timetables showing exactly when dangerous freight will be passing through. That could alert criminals, terrorists, zealots or psychopaths to potential targets. But residents can safely be told after-the-fact what is being shipped, how often and in what quantities. The railways could report publicly, perhaps on a quarterly basis.
Granted, in the wake of Lac-Mégantic railways across North America including CN and CP have taken costly steps to avert accidents. They have beefed up safety procedures, crews, inspections and training. They have bought new tank cars and retrofitted others. They have restricted train speeds. And they are sharing more data to strengthen community emergency response capabilities.
But as Matlow and Vaughan rightly point out, there’s still too much unwarranted residual secrecy surrounding these shipments. It’s time to change that.
To read this article in its original form, click here.