Transport Minister Marc Garneau has ordered all large trains carrying dangerous goods to slow their speeds along federal rail lines for 30 days, after a second crude oil train in two months derailed near the Saskatchewan hamlet of Guernsey.
The trains will be required to set a maximum speed of 40 kilometres per hour, or 32 through metropolitan areas, compared to the usual standard of 72 kph, CBC reports.
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Early last Thursday morning, “the images were strikingly familiar: A dark stretch of rural Saskatchewan land, a fiery blaze, and thick smoke billowing from train cars gone topsy-turvy,” CBC says. Drone footage “clearly showed at least two large pools of black sludge staining the snow-covered ground alongside Highway 16. Thirty-one of the train’s 104 cars derailed.”
It was a similar scene just after midnight last December 9, when an oil train went off the rails two kilometres east of Guernsey. “At least 19 of its train cars leaked an estimated 1.5 million litres of crude—more than six times the amount of product that poured into the North Saskatchewan River from a Husky Energy pipeline in July 2016,” CBC recounts.
As of Thursday afternoon, firefighters were still bringing the latest blaze under control, two Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators were en route, there were no estimates on the size of the latest crude oil spill—but “the clustering of two similar incidents only a few kilometres apart on the rail line’s Sutherland subdivision quickly drew notice and alarm”.
“It is a concern that two derailments happened in that vicinity, absolutely,” said Marlo Pritchard, president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA).
“I am very concerned about the derailments of railway cars containing dangerous goods in the past 12 months,” Garneau said after his order was published.
“Until we better understand the facts relating to today’s incident, it is prudent to operate with an abundance of caution,” agreed CP Rail President and CEO Keith Creel.
Some of those facts are beginning to emerge from the December derailment, with the TSB’s first update indicating that a hopper car just behind the locomotive and the next 33 tank cars went off the rails. “Usually when there’s a derailment and the first car off is just behind the locomotive, something like three times out of four that’s because of a broken rail,” Ian Naish, TSB’s former director of rail investigations, told CBC. “It’s highly likely it’s a broken rail.”
The other important factor in last week’s derailment is the type of tank cars involved. But however that question is eventually answered, “the tank cars don’t seem to be able to contain anything and they do pile up and there’s big releases,” Naish said.
Retired Transport Canada engineer Jean-Pierre Gagnon said the cause of the crash itself is more important than the selection of tank car. “The damage or hazard from crude oil is secondary to the main issue, which is the derailment,” he said. “If you don’t derail the train, then there’s no crude oil problem. So why did those two trains derail? What’s the cause?”
The national broadcaster has a list of about two dozen “notable” crude oil and ethanol derailments since 2006.
While questions around the derailment are sorted out and Garneau’s slowdown order remains in effect, rail experts say the change in protocol will cause a ripple effect for other freight trains along the line. “While it’s a move toward safer rail transport, the decision to slow trains down will have impacts across the country,” CBC says.
“When you’re going slower, you can stop faster. So if the problem is an obstruction on the tracks at a weird crossing or something like that, they can stop faster and minimize the impact, if not avoid it,” said Garland Chow, associate professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “The second benefit of having slower speeds is that after a collision, the impact will be less. But perhaps the most important one is that…if there is a derailment at a slower speed, fewer cars may derail.”
At the same time, Chow added that the speed differential between faster and slower trains on the same line will increase the risk of collisions, requiring train crews to be more diligent when they’re passing each other.
He said the slowdown will also have a wider impact on productivity, with the designated dangerous goods transports causing a ripple effect across the system. “The slower you go, the less capacity you have and the less you’re utilizing a given locomotive and its cars,” he told CBC. “The scheduling they optimized is now going to be impacted so that these very precise movements of the trains, which optimized utilization of the track, that original plan has now been messed up.”
“It’s four times as safe, going at half the speed,” Naish said, so that tanker cars can withstand a crash much better at a slower speed. But “if you talk about the economics issues, the fact that it’s going half as fast means that you can’t get the product to market; it gets there twice as slowly.”
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