Broken track has led to seven major derailments of crude oil trains in Canada since the tragic Lac-Mégantic disaster of 2013. Now, revelations that Canadian Pacific’s Saskatchewan line is in bad shape have experts urging Transport Canada to become a more aggressive regulator of the country’s rail system.
“A CBC News investigation has uncovered years’ worth of Transport Canada inspection reports documenting hundreds of safety problems along the Saskatchewan rail line, none of which prompted orders for trains to stop rolling,” writes Canada’s national broadcaster.
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Between 2016 and 2020, inspectors documented more than 300 problems along the 183 kilometres of CP rail that link Wynyard, Saskatchewan, to Saskatoon: “131 ‘non-compliances’ and 215 ‘concerns’, including missing or defective railway ties (the wooden planks anchoring the track) and broken joint bars (which connect two long pieces of rail),” reports CBC.
“That’s an awful lot of non-compliance reports and concerns, and it looked like they were consistent over the three or four years,” said Ian Naish, a former director of rail investigations for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). The town of Guernsey, Saskatchewan had to evacuate twice in recent months due to nearby derailments of crude oil trains—the first in early December 2019, and the second in early February 2020. Given the condition of the track, said Naish, “neither derailment was a surprise at all.”
CP failed to adequately strengthen the track, even though its crude oil load along the line southeast of Saskatoon had “increased sevenfold since 2017,” reports CBC. The company could get away with it, in part, Transport Canada’s oversight has lacked teeth.
CBC clearly dissects this failure in its analysis of Transport Canada’s documentation: in the wake of the regulatory body discovering 200 issues along the Saskatchewan line between May and August, 2019—including along the track near Guernsey—Transport Canada reported that CP had made “all necessary repairs” to the defects. Then came the back-to-back derailments and explosions in December and February.
CP competitor Canadian National, meanwhile, underwent a wholesale reconstruction of track and appointed more inspectors in the wake of the derailments of two oil trains in early 2015 in northern Ontario. CP must now meet that same standard for its Saskatchewan track, said Rob Johnston, head of Central Canadian rail operations for the TSB.
While Transport Canada “insists it runs a ‘robust’ oversight program,” writes CBC, the TSB has publicly disagreed, issuing two rail safety advisories in March that warned the regulatory body “to overhaul the track safety rules for routes that carry heavy volumes of dangerous goods.” Transport Canada has responded by instructing railway companies “to improve the quality and frequency of track inspections” and requesting that they “develop and revise new track safety rules.”
That’s not enough for observers like Naish, who are asking the regulator to “drop the hammer” on rail companies, and start refusing to cede risk management to corporate interests.
Bruce Campbell, a professor of environmental studies at York University and author of a book on the Lac-Mégantic disaster, echoes that call. “In an ideal world, Transport Canada would have the science and the resources to independently evaluate and revise the rules itself,” he told CBC.