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Flashpoint: February 2014

In my blog on Nov. 26, I discussed the protective direction issued by Lisa Raitt, minister of transport, which directed rail companies to share information with municipalities.

February 11, 2014  By Peter Sells

In my blog on Nov. 26, I discussed the protective direction issued by Lisa Raitt, minister of transport, which directed rail companies to share information with municipalities. The meat and potatoes of protective direction are that, effective immediately, Transport Canada requires that:

  • Any Canadian Class 1 railway company that transports dangerous goods must provide municipalities with yearly aggregate information, by quarter, on the nature and volume of dangerous goods the company transports by rail through that municipality; and
  • Any person who transports dangerous goods by rail, who is not a Canadian Class 1 railway company, must provide municipalities with yearly aggregate information on the nature and volume of dangerous goods transported through that municipality and must notify municipalities of any significant changes to that information, as soon as possible.

Following the 1981 release of the Grange Report on the inquiry into the Mississauga derailment, the Canadian Transport Commission ordered the implementation of several recommendations, including a speedier conversion to roller bearings, modifications of tank cars to increase safety, the use of additional hot-box detectors that identify overheated axles, and a reduction in the speed and in the length of trains. A special study of main track derailments conducted in 1994 by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that Canadian main-track derailments had declined by a factor of almost three between 1980 and 1988, but had remained essentially unchanged since then. The reason for the 1980 to 1988 decline in derailments was attributed to a combined result of technical and procedural factors, including:

  • Improved installation and repair procedures for welded rail;
  • Increased use of automatic rail defect detection and track geometry measurement technology;
  • Increasing proportion of the fleet equipped with roller bearings;
  • Gradual elimination of straight-plate wheels;
  • Improved marshalling requirements;
  • More hot box detectors; and
  • Rigorous government safety regulatory enforcement and inspection programs.

The disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July was a similar convergence of technical failure, inadequate oversight and an ineffective regulatory environment.

I don’t think I’m the only one who was surprised to find out that crude oil could behave as explosively it did in Lac-Megantic. All crude is not created equal, apparently, with some sources (notably the Bakken field in North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) composed of higher proportions of lighter, more hazardous hydrocarbons.


Warning flags had been raised, as early as December 2011, when the auditor general released a report on the transportation of dangerous products which found the following:

  • Transport Canada lacks a consistent approach to planning and implementing compliance activities. As a consequence, it cannot ensure that sites are inspected according to the highest risk.
  • Many of the issues the audit identified within Transport Canada are not new; an internal audit identified these same concerns more than five years ago. The department has yet to correct some of the key weaknesses in its regulatory oversight practices.

Similar flags were raised as late as one month before the Lac-Megantic incident, when an employee of New Brunswick’s Irving Oil refinery stated there is an over-reliance on testing at the refinery, which occurs too late in the process to address any transportation safety issues.

A group within Transport Canada is now working on an emergency response assistance plan for crude oil, with new regulations and protocols governing oil shipments to be in place by mid-2014.

What do we do now? The protective direction will ensure that community emergency management co-ordinators will receive information – albeit retroactively – on the nature and volume of dangerous goods being transported through their municipalities. If the Mississauga or Lac-Megantic incidents have taught us anything, it should be to take that information and use it to plan for the worst-case scenario.

(To view the Nov. 26 blog, click here.)

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo

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