Rail Safety Town Hall Report
The number of railroad cars carrying crude oil through Kingston has increased immensely in the last few years. Because rail and the transportation of dangerous goods are federally regulated, I invited experts to talk with the community at a town hall meeting on March 4.
They included two retired Transport Canada officials specializing in dangerous goods transport, the Chief of Kingston Fire and Rescue, the Director of Engineering for the City of Kingston, and Councilors Laura Turner and Lisa Osanic.
For those of you who couldn’t make it, here is a report.
- Our experts first gave a history of rail safety in Canada and an overview of rail safety procedures today. They touched on crucial factors such as the design of tanker cars, track and rolling-stock maintenance, and the number of personnel operating the trains.
- Our speakers agreed that progress has been made on rail operating rules since the horrific disaster at Lac Mégantic in July 2013. These improvements cover the number of hand brakes required to be set, mandating that two engineers — instead of one — operate a train carrying dangerous goods, not leaving a train carrying dangerous goods unattended, training for train crews and emergency responders, and the speed of trains.
- After years of federal government funding cuts, the response to Lac Mégantic and political pressure has resulted in an uptick in the hiring and training of inspectors. However, many experienced staff and much institutional memory have been lost.
More needs to be done.
- Rail companies manage compliance with rail safety regulations through Safety Management Systems (SMS) supplemented by Transport Canada inspectors. To avoid the pitfalls when an SMS is allowed to slide towards self-regulation, rail companies need to be engaged and prompted to push a safety culture and be proactive in monitoring compliance. They should, for example, monitor and perform track repairs without inspectors having to ask for that.
- The federal government needs to engage with the U.S. government because so many freight trains run in and out of Canada along the border. Rules need to be harmonized — for example the requirement that trains carrying dangerous goods be operated by two engineers instead of one.
- Kingston Fire and Rescue Chief Rhéaume Chaput expressed concerns about being able to quickly find out the contents of rail cars in the case of an accident. He is only given a top-25 list of possible dangerous goods that pass through Kingston, not lists of cargo by train. He also emphasized the need for resources to teach volunteer first responders in rural areas to deal with dangerous goods, and proposed that a small fee be imposed on the transport of dangerous goods to help pay for that.
Those who attended our information session had many great questions and comments. Some of the concerns/questions we heard from community members:
- Are city planners taking into account rail lines when planning locations of schools or nursing homes? Expert: there are established setbacks and the City works closely with Fire and Rescue to develop emergency response plans.
- Are even two engineers enough? Expert: with modern automation, going from one engineer to two is enough.
- How quickly does the rail company know that a derailment has occurred in a remote area? Expert: immediately.
- Are cars with dangerous goods spaced out or arranged with non-dangerous cars in-between? Expert: yes.