As the investigation into the Lac Megantic disaster continues, the transportation of hazardous material by train and emergency response to accidents is never far from the minds of those who live near rail lines. In the aftermath of the deadly derailment, the federal government started to require rail companies to report on the dangerous goods they carry each year. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has also recommended improvements to commonly used tankers which are considered to be unsafe. Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt has until spring to respond to the board’s recommendations. Trains containing oil and other hazardous materials travel through Hamilton’s residential, business and conservation areas more than 20 times a day, and nearby residents want to know what is being done to improve safety and prevent catastrophic incidents. They want to know what is coming down the track.
Joanne Stremble’s kids used to wave to the engineers of passing trains from the backyard of her Brydale Court home in Dundas. Sometimes, the operator would respond by tooting the horn.
After 11 years in the northwest Dundas subdivision that was once a quarry, Stremble is used to living so close to the CN Rail line. Her family, like thousands of Dundas, Stoney Creek and Hamilton residents, live near the CN main line that’s travelled daily by tankers full of crude oil and other hazardous materials every day.
“I don’t want [the trains] to go away,” Stremble said. “I just want to be safer.”
Jordan Hill, who retired to Dundas seven years ago, often wondered about the rail line that careens picturesquely along the steep escarpment bank through Dundas. After Lac Megantic, he became concerned about what was travelling that precarious route just above the roofs of his neighbours.
“And … who has a handle on it?” he asked.
Hill tapped into a widespread concern with a letter to the editor of Hamilton Community News about the Class 111 general use tankers, the same type involved in the Lac Megantic disaster, used on the CN line to carry all sorts of dangerous goods.
In Lac Megantic’s wake, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has called for improvements to rail safety — including enhanced standards for Class 111 tankers; route planning and analysis for trains carrying dangerous goods and new emergency response plans.
Hill and his neighbours want to know what the federal government plans to do with the board’s recommendations.
“We want to do our due diligence and get as well-informed as possible, and pass that on to our fellow citizens,” Hill said. “The trains are here to stay and we want them to be as safe as possible. In the event of a disaster, we want our first responders to be well trained and equipped. I think these are reasonable goals for a community which has the main line going right through it, with the increased risk of the grade and curve.”
Hill is fond of saying that gravity works in one direction as he drives around Dundas to neighbourhoods nestled against the escarpment — attractive neighbourhoods surrounded by trees and rock with a rail line only metres away.
He points out the dramatic curves and slopes trains traverse along the escarpment, above the nearby homes, schools and roads.
Transport Canada, the federal department responsible for regulating the country’s rail industry, introduced a new Protective Direction on rail companies late last year in response to the early findings of the Lac Megantic investigation. The new rules require rail companies to provide an annual report to municipalities of all the dangerous goods travelling through their area.
“Municipalities will know what’s coming through,” said Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale Conservative MP David Sweet.
Sweet pointed out there has long been requirements for labeling rail cars carrying dangerous goods, which helps emergency responders know what is in the trains and how to deal with it in an emergency. He added that the government takes rail safety seriously.
“Transport Canada spent 65 per cent more on rail safety (last year) than they did in 2007,” Sweet said. “Rail accidents in Canada are down 23 per cent since 2007. I think this is a positive move. I’m glad we’re taking it up a significant notch. The direction is very promising.”
Hamilton fire chief Rob Simonds said overall he’s pleased with the new reporting requirement, despite the information being a year old.
“Although it’s always beneficial to have real time information, knowing the most common dangerous goods being transported through our city allows the Hamilton Fire Department to make a more focused approach to pre-incident planning,” Simonds said.
Ali Asgary, an associate professor in York University’s Emergency Management Program, agreed providing annual aggregate data to emergency responders is beneficial, but far from perfect.
“They are good as long term weather forecasts,” he said. “Real time weather information is what most end users might like. Same here. It is ideal for emergency managers to have current and real time, or close to real time, information about the transported materials.”
However, that’s not his biggest concern.
“It’s not really knowing the information about the [hazardous material] even if they are in real time that is important. More important is what they are going to do with it,” Asgary said.
Asgary suggested some municipalities, even with specific details, may not have the capacity to deal with a train disaster and he wonders if local hospitals are prepared to deal with impacts of an incident involving hazardous materials.
Hamilton Health Sciences says it has an Emergency and Disaster Plan. Although details were not made available, the document is under the auspices of vice president Nancy Fram and includes action plans based on risk assessments conducted every few years and feedback from exercises and events.
Asgary said the public doesn’t need to have detailed real time information on transportation of dangerous goods, but they do need information and education to make decisions, such as choosing whether to live near train tracks, voicing objections to use of existing tracks and knowing what to do in the case of a derailment.
Hill wants to know if the City of Hamilton is prepared to respond to an accident involving the Class 111 tankers. He wants to know how quickly the tankers are being replaced, and what precautions are being taken.
“Right now, we don’t have very much information,” he said. “Politicians seem a bit passive and bureaucratic at this point, but they can help educate the public about mitigating risk and coping with an incident. In fact, that is part of their job.”
Stremble isn’t sure she really needs to know real time details of the hazardous material traveling above her backyard and separated only by a rotten wooden barrier on the Niagara Escarpment slope.
“I think knowing emergency responders have that information would be reassuring to the community,” Stremble said.