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There is an interesting article in Canadian Business Magazine dated January 19th, available here, that offers some interesting insight into the Canadian/North American railroad business. Nominally the article is about the battle between CP investors, CP and CN about the possibility that Hunter Harrison, the former CEO of CN, will come out of retirement to head up CP. Apparently CP is in need of a ‘turn around’ according to an activist investor, and they feel former CN CEO Harrison is the guy to get it done based on his earlier ‘success’ at CN.

What caught my eye though were the comments related to rail safety. Apparently CP is a laggard in the area of profit, but a leader in the area of rail safety. The article noted that ” While CP may be the least efficient railroad on the continent, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration has named it the safest Class 1 railroad in North America 11 of the last 13 years.”

While there may be a correlation between relatively low profit levels and higher safety performance there is no hard evidence to support a causal relationship. But a further comment in the article may cause some of us who have CN and CP trains running through town to worry about the adoption by CP of some CN business practices.

“And safety is one of the few areas that actually suffered at CN under Harrison’s control. The Cheakamus River near Squamish, B.C., for one, is nearing the end of a decade-long, $5.3-million restoration plan after a CN train derailed on the site in 2005, spilling over 40,000 litres of caustic soda. Among other incidents, a derailment caused a forest fire in Wisconsin, and 800,000 litres of heavy oil gushed into Lake Wabamun, west of Edmonton. This last offence earned CN a $1.4-million fine and the Alberta government’s insistence that CN update its emergency response system to industry standards.”

Most business observers are watching the battle to see who wins and whether Hunter Harrison can turn around the company if the CP investors win their battle with the board and CN. Some of us though will be watching and wondering if the ascension of Hunter Harrison to the leadership of CP means we will be facing an increased risk of human, property and environmental disaster.

It has been said that when two nations go to war it is the civilians that suffer the most. Let’s hope it’s not the same for the people and communities that bear the burden of rail traffic in this country.

For those of you interested in rail related issues, for or against, are urged to check out a well written and balanced blog, railandreason.com. It’s one of my regular reads and, in my opinion, an important resource for anybody interested in understanding the issues.