The explosion, shocking loss of life and the incineration of idyllic downtown Lac Mégantic, Québec, is a catastrophe for the ages.
The tragedy, however, does give us the ability to learn new lessons. The independent Transportation Safety Board (TSB) will examine the railway procedures of that evening and provide answers on the cause of the incident. It will investigate whether human error was at play, and examine the structural integrity of the tank cars and the air braking system of the runaway railway in particular.
But beyond looking at causes, wider policy questions – about the safety of the transportation of oil by rail and the security of the many towns built along the rail lines across the country – are being asked. As rail will always be part of oil’s journey from production field to gas pump due to pipeline over-capacity and the location of oil production, Canadians are right to examine its transportation.
Some are claiming that the Lac Mégantic rail disaster means oil transportation should be confined to pipelines, but pipelines have their own set of risks and more pipeline capacity will not eradicate rail demand for oil transport. The facts show that, despite the increase in the amount of crude oil shipped by rail over the past five years, there has been no concurrent increase in the number of derailments. Rail accidents involving dangerous goods have decreased nearly by half in recent years.
Freight railways in the U.S. transport about 1.7 million carloads of dangerous goods each year, representing about 7 per cent of carloads in North America. Canada’s railways transported 140,000 carloads of oil last year. With dangerous goods criss-crossing the country daily, it may be a hollow argument to now turn against transportation of oil by rail.
As a strong and safe performer, rail has become an attractive alternative to shippers, with the result that it has consistently gained market share. Strong performance, however, can be a two-edged sword. Despite impressive market gains, the downside for rail is that it is obliged to transport all goods offered to it for delivery. It cannot refuse shipment on the basis of inconvenience, cost, potential liability or the lack of profitability. The obligation, known as the common carrier doctrine, has special relevance in the transportation of dangerous goods and petroleum products where rail, being self-insured, may prefer to refuse the goods.
There are only unsatisfactory alternatives for Canadians who seek safe communities and alternatives to rail lines in urban areas. One would be to allow limits to the common carrier obligation. It would allow railways, which face ruinous damages in the event of an accident, greater freedom in choosing whether to accept the cargo deemed dangerous.
In 2009 in the U.S., Union Pacific Railroad asked to be relieved from its common carrier obligation to transport chlorine. The request was turned down. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board reasoned that allowing rail to supersede its obligation to carry all goods, including chlorine, could result in rail controlling markets served by the chemical producers.
Other solutions are equally difficult, including relocating railway lines away from urban centres which is allowed under Canadian law but which comes at great cost.
The only real answer lies in ensuring the safe transportation of all products moving by rail. Legislation should ensure that emergency preparedness, technological improvements and operational safety protocols are in the forefront. U.S. railways lead Canadian railways on these issues.
Canada should give a fresh look at positive train control (PTC) technology, mandated by the U.S. Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. PTC technology monitors train speed and position, warns of speed or authority limits and brakes automatically if train crews fail to respond. PTC would prevent derailments, in cases of excessive speed, conflicting train movements or engineer failure to obey wayside signals, by automatically stopping trains where a collision or derailment is imminent.
Depending on the facts found by the TSB on the Lac Mégantic disaster, PTC may be of limited relevance. Yet, given that most rail accidents originate with human error and track defect in equal measure, an examination of how technology can best ensure safe rail operations is needed. It can provide Canadians with the extra security they require in the transportation of goods.
It is not the transportation of oil by rail that requires an alternative. Rather, it is the way we address safe rail operations in this country.