Toronto Star - When the mayor of Canada's largest city sounds an alarm on rail safety, along with councillors from neighbourhoods at particular risk, federal officials would do well to listen. [View copy of the letter]
They would do even better to act before a catastrophe hits some large urban area.
The concerns expressed in a letter to federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt by Toronto Mayor John Tory, and 17 councillors from across the political spectrum, aren't the result of idle anxiety. On the contrary, they're a timely warning about gaps that persist in Canada's revamped rail-safety rules and regulations.
In the wake of the train derailment and subsequent inferno that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Que., it's essential that those gaps be closed.
The open letter to Raitt was initiated by Councillor Josh Matlow and signed by representatives of every ward traversed by a major Canadian Pacific rail line running through the city. As reported by the Star's Jessica McDiarmid, the politicians took a particularly strong stand due to worry that many residents' homes are located extremely close to tracks routinely used to transport dangerous goods.
While expressing appreciation for federal rail safety improvements brought in so far, the councillors who signed the letter are calling for more, including:
A look at using alternate routes to ship dangerous material currently moving through densely populated neighbourhoods.
Accelerated removal of tank cars, used to ship volatile crude oil, that don't meet Ottawa's revamped safety standards.
A review of those standards, especially in light of recent accidents in Northern Ontario involving supposedly better tank cars that did satisfy new federal requirements.
Two fiery derailments have happened near Gogama, Ont., between Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie, in recent weeks - one in February and one in March. The incidents were particularly troubling in that they involved tank cars that were meant to be a significant improvement over the old DOT-111 tankers that failed with such horrific consequences at Lac-Mégantic.
It's only a matter of luck that both these recent accidents occurred in isolated areas instead of in the middle of a city or town. Tougher, more crash-resistant tank cars are desperately needed, and they shouldn't be introduced through some leisurely, years-long regulatory phase-in.
The March 31 letter from Toronto's mayor and councillors also suggested "promoting better communication between the rail industry and communities." But that's not specific enough.
Rail carriers are currently required to tell municipal first-responders about hazardous goods moving through their city or town. Such information is passed along strictly on a confidential basis, so that fire departments and other agencies can be in a better position to draw up disaster-response plans.
But concerned residents living near rail lines also deserve to know, at least after the fact, the nature of what's being transported just outside their door. Unfortunately, Ottawa's reformed rules and regulations, so far, require no such clarity.
Members of the public deserve to be more thoroughly informed on rail safety issues; stronger tank cars need to be brought in more quickly and dangerous shipments should be detoured around dense urban areas. Once such measures are instituted, federal officials will be in a position to say honestly that they have taken every reasonable step to avoid another disaster on the scale of Lac-Mégantic.
[This story was reposted from the Toronto Star on Tuesday, April 7th, 2015]