Room for improvement on Canadian railways after Ohio derailment: safety board


2023-03-09 20:30:00

In the aftermath of a U.S. train derailment that released a plume of toxic chemicals into the air, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is reiterating a call for safety improvements on its network – improvements that protect communities like Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood.

While the independent agency tells CTV News Toronto change has been made, it said the rail industry has been slow to act on some of the transportation safety recommendations issued by the board.

“We really focus on those recommendations that are key safety issues that continue to exist and where perhaps the action and the plans that are taken are not fully addressing the recommendation to its fullest,” the board said in an interview.

One of those recommendations includes making improvements to the braking systems, which could help communities be less vulnerable to future disasters.

Rail cars frequently roll through the Junction, a neighbourhood in west Toronto, carrying dangerous goods. While this is a common practice, transporting toxins through residential neighbourhoods poses an inherent risk if derailment was to occur. Philip Jessop, an organic chemistry professor at Queen’s University, said immediate concerns would include fire and inhalation risks, which would “go away fairly quickly.”

“But the corrosive damage to the lungs, if it’s serious, can be a lifetime kind of impairment,” Jessop said.

On Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed on the outskirts of the small Ohio village of East Palestine, less than 400 km southeast of the Ont.-U.S border. No one was injured in the wreck, but the subsequent plume of harmful chemicals prompted officials to order an evacuation. Four days after the crash, East Palestine residents were permitted to return to their homes, but concerns about the long-term health effects of the chemicals released remain.

When reached for comment, Environment and Climate Change Canada told CTV News Toronto they have been monitoring air quality in Canada daily and that preliminary analysis of air-quality data in Ontario indicates no impact on Canada from the February derailment.

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, there were 86 rail accidents involving dangerous goods in 2021 – four more than 2020. In two of the incidents, cargo spilled.

“Action is being taken,” Vincenzo de Angelis, director of rail investigations with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, told CTV News Toronto. “We’re adding layers of defence to hopefully prevent this from happening again.

“As we’ve seen in Ohio, it can happen.”

It’s been nearly a decade since a tragic rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que. where 47 people lost their lives after a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded. Since then, both safety measures and railway networks have made improvements in Canada. Railways are required to report the top 10 dangerous goods they transport through a province.

According to the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), accident rates have improved by 16.2 per cent over the last decade and that, “for every railway and every railroader in Canada, safety is job one.”

“Canada’s freight railways are the safest in North America and among the safest in the world – a record that has only improved in the past decade,” an RAC spokesperson said.

In 2021, just over nine per cent of of the Canadian National Railway (CN) shipments in Canada were dangerous goods. Among the contents that passed through Ontario were sulfuric acid, combustible liquid, nitrous oxide, and liquefied petroleum gases.

It’s a similar output as the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway’s. Just over 10 per cent of its 2021 shipments were made up of dangerous goods.

CP Railway told CTV News Toronto in a statement that it is not only common for hazardous materials to be transported on railways, but legally required.

“Railways, including CP, are legally required to transport hazardous materials as part of their common carrier obligations, on reasonable terms and conditions, and to do so in accordance with all applicable laws, including safety and environmental protection regulations.” 

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