When a train carrying more than 11 million litres of crude oil derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of families, it was the latest reminder of the potential for disaster posed by the growing amount of crude being shipped by rail.
The incident also made the federal government’s announcement Friday of new rail safety measures a well-timed one.
The new legislation calls for beefed-up rail safety inspections, a higher insurance liability from small carriers and creation of a $250-million compensation fund, to be paid for by oil producers, which will cover costs above those covered by insurance.
There’s certainly a strong desire and need for improved safety efforts in response to the increasing frequency of derailments in recent years. There have been a number of smaller incidents in just the past few years, including two early last year – a derailment and fire involving a CN train in New Brunswick, and, a few days later, a derailment in Burnaby, B.C. that dumped coal into a creek.
But the incident that really grabbed the public’s attention was the deadly derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July 2013 which killed 47 people and destroyed the town’s downtown core.
That incident revved up concern among citizens about the safety of oil being shipped by rail through communities across the country. With forecasts calling for rail shipments of crude oil to increase in the coming years, it goes without saying that there’s a strong desire and need to ensure rail safety is as good as we can make it.
Toward that end, the new legislation specifies stepped-up safety inspections by Transport Canada, along with giving inspectors the power to order rail companies to take action when potential safety issues are found. That’s an improvement on the present situation in which rail companies can only be ordered to act on an immediate safety threat.
Of course, increasing safety inspections is going to require the necessary manpower to carry them out. Last November, a report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson noted that Transport Canada had just 10 systems auditors to handle the workload when it needed at least 20. At that time, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also suggested the keys to safety are the on-site inspectors, and there have been questions raised about whether Transport Canada has enough of those to do the job.
The move to require higher insurance liability from carriers and to create a disaster relief fund will also provide greater protection in the event of derailments. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway went bankrupt after the Lac-Megantic incident and was only carrying $25 million in insurance. The Quebec government says it has spent more than $200 million so far for cleanup efforts. That doesn’t begin to cover the costs of rebuilding Lac-Megantic’s core, which could reach $2 billion, according to the town’s mayor.
Ensuring there is money to deal with the consequences of train derailments is wise, but it’s far better to prevent derailments from happening in the first place. That’s where the front end of the Safe and Accountable Rail Act – the safety inspections – play such an important role. Let’s hope, once they are put into practice, we will see some positive results.