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Making transport by rail much safer

The Lac Megantic disaster was a wake-up call for anyone who lives within sight of a railroad, leaving people asking, “Could something like it happen here?

With over 20 CN freight trains a day rumbling through Hamilton carrying all forms of goods, from steel to chemicals, the answer is an empathic “yes.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that something like Lac Megantic or the 1979 derailment, fire and explosion that took place in Mississauga will happen here, but the threat that it could must be taken seriously.

Until quite recently, communities had no idea of what types of dangerous goods were being transported through their backyards. Railways weren’t required to tell municipalities anything, leaving them unable to come up with emergency plans or properly train first responders based on what they’d be likely to face in the event of a catastrophe.

Having that sort of information saves lives — not just those of firefighters and paramedics, but of those anywhere near the accident site.

In the wake of Lac Megantic, Transport Canada started requiring railroads to submit annual reports to municipalities detailing all the types and quantities of dangerous goods that pass through their borders. While this information is a huge improvement from past practice, it is over a year old and may not reflect current shipping practices.

What would be ideal would be a system that would give emergency services workers real time information about what’s coming down the track.

Sadly, that is unlikely to happen.

First off, there are commercial concerns. If the railway’s competitors found out that it was moving a certain type of good to a certain location, then it could come in and try to out bid them for the business. Truckers are not required to report their hazardous loads to the cities they pass through, so why should rail?

Second, there is the safety aspect. If an individual was looking to cause large scale damage to a city and were able to either acquire or hack the real-time hazardous goods rail transport database, it wouldn’t take much to plan and execute an effective and deadly terrorist attack.

Perhaps the solution is for rail companies to have that information at the ready so that as soon as a problem is reported to them they can tell emergency services what the train is carrying, in what amounts and where in the long line of cars each material is located. That would give first responders the information they need to effectively handle the situation, hospitals the heads up on the types of causalities they will be seeing and the city an idea of what sort of evacuation would be necessary for area residents and businesses.

It would also bring a great deal of comfort to those who go to sleep each night by the sound of the train whistle as they could start hearing it once again as the soothing music of the night rather than potential harbinger of death.

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