If you are like me, whenever I get stuck in those frustratingly long line ups waiting for that #*^!@ …train to clear through the core, I continually ask myself – what the heck were they thinking? That moment passes quickly as I snap back to reality and remember that the reason those trains are going through our town, at what seems like the most inconvenient of times, is quite simply because it means business is working.
Area plants are manufacturing products for export in one direction and the feedstock they need to build their products are flowing in from the opposite direction. That means business alright and that means thousands of jobs right here in London and across the country.
That being said, no one will ever forget the unfortunate and tragic derailment that took place in Lac-Megantic, Quebec this past July. Events like that are not only horrific, they are entirely preventable. Doubtless the entire rail industry will be under enormous pressure to guarantee the maximum safety for their passengers, crews, and all Canadians who live on or near a rail line.
And again, if you are like me, you may also ponder from time to time, exactly what is in all those tanker cars that pass right through our downtown every day of the week. Could a Lac-Megantic disaster happen here? Well you only have to drive down the 401 for an hour and half and ask the good people of Mississauga. (Nov. 1979 – 200,000 people evacuated after train from Windsor derails with explosives and chemicals on board).
To no one’s surprise, since the tragic derailment of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train in Lac-Mégantic, many civic officials (hopefully including our own) have been contacting CN and CP, asking for more information on the commodities that pass through their jurisdictions and what plans are in place to ensure that this type of disaster never occurs again.
I was contacted recently by my good friend Sean Finn, Executive Vice-President, Corporate Services of CN and the former Chair of the Board for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. To be clear, while I may be a good friend of Sean’s, CN by no means needs a Gerry Macartney as an apologist for Canada’s rail industry. Though CN was not involved in this incident, they clearly recognize the concerns being expressed by municipalities across the entire country and I am thankful that Sean took the time to share these perspectives with me.
First, as we already know, the tragic and unusual incident that took place at Lac-Mégantic, Québec will be thoroughly investigated by federal authorities to determine what went wrong, and it’s is a sober reminder that safety must be an absolute priority in the rail industry. Agreed! And, notwithstanding that accidents can, and do happen, the movement of hazardous material by rail is in fact handled with a high level of safety. More than 99 per cent of dangerous goods moving by rail arrive at their destination without a release caused by an accident. That is reassuring and as much as we would all like that to be 100%, that will likely never be achieved by any mode of transportation.
CN has a network of more than 23,000 miles and on it they transport a wide array of products. These products are essential to our local and national economy and one could argue, our way of life for communities across Canada. They include forest products, metals and minerals, grains and fertilizers, automotive products, petroleum and chemicals, coal, defense machinery, and a variety of consumer goods carried in intermodal containers. Any of these products, including those classified as Dangerous Goods, can be expected to be moved on any part of the CN rail network.
The Railway regularly shares information with responsible authorities, including municipal officials and responders, on what commodities are handled through their jurisdiction. This is done to assist municipal emergency planners and responders in developing effective and realistic emergency response plans.
Railways in Canada and the United States are subject to extensive safety regulation. Through the Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response (TRANSCAER®), CN works closely to help communities understand the movement of hazardous materials and what is required in the event of transportation incidents. They also work with partner chemical companies to support communities with information sessions and training and simulations for community leaders and first-responders about hazardous commodities.
Are any of these things an iron-clad guarantee that incidents like Lac-Megantic will never happen again? We certainly hope so. But, if nothing else it has put the entire rail industry in Canada on high alert in ensuring that operators like CN, provide the utmost in safety for the communities through which they operate. And that at least provides me with some increased confidence that the likelihood or probability of another catastrophic disaster can be averted.
The London Chamber of Commerce has donated a modest sum to the Lac-Megantic Red Cross Relief Fund. Let’s hope it provides at least a small measure of relief for those who suffered the tragic loss of friends and relatives. Let’s hope too, that we have taken away some hard lessons from this tragedy and that Canada’s rail industry will, more than ever, place our safety first.
Please feel free to contact us at the Chamber should you wish to have the contact information for CN with respect to the transportation of hazardous commodities that move through London.