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The Canadian Government is Blowing Up Bomb Trains for Practice

Years after the Lac-Mégantic? disaster, the Canadian government is only just beginning to do the hard work of making sure that rail transportation of oil is safe.
March 18, 2016, 4:51pm
Photo via Recherche et développement de défense du Canada — Centre pour les sciences de la sécurité

Two and a half years after a train carrying crude oil ran off the tracks in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and exploded, killing 47 people, the Canadian government set a tanker on fire and pretended to run a train off its tracks as practice in case it happens again.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned train carrying ultra-flammable western crude plummeted into the downtown of 6,000-resident Lac-Mégantic, where it erupted in flames and flattened everything in its path. The Lac-Mégantic tragedy spurred a debate in Canada and the US about the safety of so-called "bomb trains", and reinvigorated the discussion about shipping oil across Canada.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

The debate has become a heated one, and largely comes down to whether to build large pipeline projects amid an uptick in the amount of volatile crude oil moved by rail. Both pipeline and oil by rail proponents argue their methods of transport are safe. Meanwhile, environmental groups argue both methods inevitably lead to spills or explosions, and that the oil should stay in the ground, while Canada should beef up its focus on renewable energy.

According to Transport Canada's own data, crude oil moved by rail has increased dramatically in Canada over the past decade, from only four carloads in 2005 to 174,000 carloads in 2014.

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In the case of Lac Megantic, an investigation showed a complex series of errors allowed the disaster to happen.

The goal of the recent train simulation, which used flammable liquid common in firefighter training rather than actual crude, was to improve emergency preparedness and public trust around the movement of crude and other dangerous goods by rail.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

Firefighters arrived on the scene of 11 smoking tanks that had derailed. They were taught to identify the contents of the tanks and decide when it was better not to intervene, as that could make the situation worse. If tackling the fire directly, the firefighters were told to apply foam and water spray to extinguish the flames.

It's taken two-and-a-half years to start upgrading the procedures around emergency response to train derailments involving crude, and they're not done yet. Exercise Vulcan, as the simulation was dubbed, was a test run of those new procedures, and Transport Canada hopes to use the training in other parts of the country in the future.

"Better late than never," one industry expert told VICE News in reaction to Transport Canada running the train derailment simulation last weekend.

It's too soon to tell whether Lac-Mégantic has sparked real safety upgrades in the rail industry, transportation industry consultant Ian Naish said. "They're replacing tank cars, [but] they're doing it slowly.

"Speed of the oil trains is a big issue to me," he continued. "I'd recommend they take another look at the maximum speed at which a train should operate because the two that went off the rails in Gogama last year were operating at around 40 miles per hour, which is 60 or 70 kilometres an hour, and since all the tank cars failed, that obviously was too fast."

A photo of the aftermath of the Gogama derailment. Photo via the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Just over a year ago, a crude oil train exploded in a fireball and derailed near the town of Gogama in northern Ontario. No injuries or deaths were reported in the March 7, 2015 explosion. It took three days to extinguish the flames.

At the time, it was the second CN train to derail near Gogama in a three-week period. Both incidents resulted in spilled crude oil.

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The tankers that derailed in both Gogama accidents were the same type of Class 111 tanks that ruptured in Lac Megantic. The Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency tasked with investigating transportation disasters in Canada, has warned for years that Class 111 tanks are unsafe because they aren't reinforced and tend to break open when they crash.

"It will be very silly for everybody, not only Quebec — any province, and any state in the United States — not to learn from what happened in Lac-Mégantic. What happened showed so many voids in the system, and so much lack of important information."

But it won't be until after May 1, 2017 that the notorious Class 111 tank cars — which are most susceptible to damage when they crash — will no longer be able to carry crude. Phasing in more crash-resistant tank cars will mean the Class 111s will be off the rails "as soon as practically possible," Transport Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier told VICE News.

After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Transport Canada says it introduced strict new rules, including a two-person minimum for crews on trains carrying dangerous goods, a requirement for railway companies on federally-regulated tracks to hold valid certificates, new speed limits for trains carrying dangerous goods.

In the US, though, there's been pushback from the railroad industry, with one representative saying there is "simply no safety case" for two-person crews.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

Transport Canada also introduced more frequent audits, better sharing of information with municipalities, and increased track inspections. Plus, the agency amended the Railway Safety Act, researched crude for a better understanding of the volatile oil, and made it mandatory for some railways to submit training plans to the agency.

Since Lac-Mégantic, one improvement is that local first responders are now more aware of what dangerous goods, including crude, are travelling through their communities, Naish added.

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And according to an engineering professor who witnessed first-hand the scene after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, while the railway industry is ramping up safety measures, the risk of increased shipments of oil by rail could balance those out, meaning it may not actually be any safer since Lac-Mégantic.

"Is it enough?" Rosa Galvez-Cloutier told VICE News when asked about the improved safety measures. "That's hard to say. Zero risk doesn't exist."

Another major concern for Galvez-Cloutier is that when government and industry look at risk and safety, they tend do so project by project.

"Who is evaluating the big picture? Who is evaluating the whole thing?" She asked. "Government needs to put more interest and focus on the cumulative impacts of transporting dangerous goods."

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

That debate is especially hot in Quebec, where the Lac-Mégantic explosion occurred. A recent poll of Quebec residents found they aren't as likely as the rest of Canada to trust either pipelines or oil by rail.

According to a study by the Fraser Institute published last August, pipelines are 4.5 times safer than rail for moving oil — the rate of incidents for pipelines is 0.049 incidents per million barrels of oil moved, while that rate is 0.227 per million barrels of oil for trains.

"It will be very silly for everybody, not only Quebec — any province, and any state in the United States — not to learn from what happened in Lac-Mégantic. What happened showed so many voids in the system, and so much lack of important information," Galvez-Cloutier said.

When asked if he would rather have a pipeline or a train carrying crude through his backyard, Naish laughed and said "Well I'd rather not live in the neighborhood, personally."

"In the ideal world, the rail lines and the pipelines would avoid all populated areas all the time."

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont