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CN officials were in town on November 6th to make a presentation to Council and Staff. It was not a public meeting as far as I can understand. Members of the Parry Sound Rail Safety Committee were not invited to intend. Or at least as a member of that committee I wasn’t invited.

I was provided a copy of the presentation by one of the individuals who attended the meeting. I was planning to make a copy and link it to this post but then read at the bottom of the front page: “This presentation contains sensitive and confidential information that should not be distributed without the prior consent of CN”. Sheesh, safety is now a confidential matter. Oh, well. At least I can let you know what it was I thought was interesting but not ‘confidential’.

Key Points:

  1. CN has about 23,000 miles of track. A look at the track routes suggest about a third are in the USA.
  2. About 37 ‘Main Track Accidents in Canada’ were reported to the Transportation Safety Board in Canada (TSB). That’s down from about 104 in 2007. But there is some question as to what is and isn’t reported to the TSB. I’m not comfortable with the absolute numbers presented, but I like the overall trend. The figures for USA operations are 32 in 2012, with 76 in 2007. Again a good relative improvement. The target should be zero, but the public and companies are far from perfect.
  3. CN provided an updated summary of the protocol for securing unattended equipment. This clearly is a response to the tragedy in Lac-Megantic. I’m sure this is a significant upgrade over previous protocols.
  4. CN noted that they are not the owners of the tanker cars that they haul. They are owned either by the clients or leasing companies. In does absolve them of some responsibility, but what is their moral responsibility for transporting goods in what is considered to be unsafe tankers? The airlines restrict what they will carry on the basis of the material hazard level. But where does moral responsibility factor into a balance sheet or profit and loss statement?
  5. CN estimates that about 7% of the cars that roll through Parry Sound carry dangerous commodities. These include:
    1. Poisonous materials (1%) – principally chlorine and anhydrous ammonia
    2. Flammable materials (74%) – liquid propane, gasoline, diesel fuel and crude oil
    3. Corrosive materials (23%) – including sodium hydroxide, batteries, various acids
    4. Other (2%) – asphalt, ammonium nitrate (an explosive material)
  6. The CN emergency response plan basically seems to operate on the basis of ‘need to know’. Communications with federal and municipal departments and personnel are provided only “As Conditions Warrant”.

Council noted at a session following this meeting that this was the most information they had ever received from CN. That’s a good start and the reasons for CN to reach out to communities subjected to significant rail traffic are pretty obvious. Transport Canada will be forced by public opinion to propose stricter safety and operations regulations in the wake of Lac-Megantic. The railways are hoping to get ahead of it by convincing communities that they are in the best position to set, implement and monitor standards for rail operations.

I’m not so sure about that. I spent three decades working in an industry, pharmaceuticals, that insisted on significant self regulation and very limited oversight. This is the same industry that reported enviable profits while continuously increasing prices and profits. In the last few years the impact of limited regulatory oversight has been evidenced by multiple settlements, worth billions of dollars, for illegal practices. And now legislators are demanding more oversight by federal departments while denying them the authority to do so, often as a result of industry lobbying.

But there are good people working in the pharmaceutical industry – smart, hardworking and ethical. It’s the same in most industries, including the rail business. It’s the pressure to improve performance, as measured by profits, that causes corners to be cut and principles to be stretched to where there are transgressions, accidents and real damage. Are derailments and the resulting human and environmental damage a result of poor track and rolling stock maintenance, or was it just bad luck? It seems too often it’s cheaper to pay to clean up the mess than than prevent it.

This initiative by CN to reach out to communities is a good start. I’d like to see the railways do more. I’d like them to pay attention to the less easily recognized impact they have on communities with the noise, vibration and pollution arising from heavier, longer and more frequent trains. Right now it feels a bit like tobacco companies focusing on the prevention of deaths from fires caused by smoking in bed while ignoring the impact smoking has on the incidence of cancer, COPD and emphysema. How many years did it take the tobacco industry to admit that smoking wasn’t good for you? And how many years after that was it until they tacitly agreed smoking was potentially lethal? Actually I don’t think they have ever admitted it, they have just resigned themselves to being fined for it. Once again it’s more profitable to just clean up a mess than prevent it.

So let’s hope the railways in time turn their attention to the impact their operations have on communities. Perhaps by working together we can find solutions that improve the health and safety of individuals while making sure the railways remain vigorous and profitable.

Couple Topics of Current Discussion (Parry Sound in B&W)