Unsafe rail cars targeted
OTTAWA—The federal government yesterday announced an aggressive—some say unrealistic—plan to phase out within three years tens of thousands of older tank cars used to transport oil and ethanol by rail.
Transport minister Lisa Raitt said about 5,000 of the most dangerous tank cars will be pulled off the tracks within a month—part of a series of measures in response to recommendations by the Transportation Safety Board in the wake of last summer’s deadly derailment and fire in Lac Megantic, Que.
Rail carriers also will be required to prepare emergency response assistance plans for shipments of all petroleum products—everything from crude oil to diesel. A single car in a train would trigger the need for such a plan, noted Raitt.
Emergency response is to be improved across the country through a task force involving municipalities, first responders, railways, and shippers.
Raitt also said there will be changes to insurance rules so that, in the event of an accident, there will be enough to cover compensation and clean-up costs without tapping the public purse.
But the headline promise on tank cars also is the most problematic.
There are an estimated 65,000 of the older cars, known as DOT-111s, currently hauling oil or ethanol in a largely-integrated North American fleet—up to a third of which are being used in Canada at any given time.
The cars cross the border almost daily, industry insiders noted yesterday.
But unlike an earlier joint Canada-U.S. rail safety announcement in January, the U.S. Department of Transport has not yet decided how to address the issue of unsafe DOT-111s.
Since 2011, the rail industry voluntarily has adopted tougher safety standards for all new cars.
But with literally only a handful of tank car-makers in North America and a huge boom in oil-by-rail shipments, demand far outstrips supply.
“Three years is the amount of time that we thought was the best saw-off between what industry said that they could do and what is wanted by the Transportation Safety Board,” said Raitt.
“I’m sure if you asked industry, they’re going to say it’s ambitious in terms of the amount of goods that are being moved in crude or in ethanol currently,” she conceded.
The Railway Association of Canada did not agree to an interview yesterday but responded with a cautiously-worded statement saying “a three-year phase-out for legacy tank cars marks an important step toward a fleet of cars that will enhance safety.”
Canadian Pacific said it welcomes the announcement about older DOT-111 tank cars, but called the government’s plan incomplete.
“We applaud the Minister of Transport’s direction to eliminate the use of older tank cars,” CEO E. Hunter Harrison said in a statement late yesterday.
But he added that “human behaviours are a significant factor and should be the focus if the goal is to truly improve safety.”
Larry Beirlein, a Washington-based lawyer with the Association of Hazmat Shippers, literally laughed out loud when told of Transport Canada’s three-year deadline.
“And the sun will rise in the west!” he guffawed. “There aren’t that many car builders who can replace 20,000 cars,” added Beirlein, whose organization uses tank cars for everything from oil to nail polish.
“There just aren’t that many facilities capable of doing that kind of work, as well as repair of existing equipment,” he stressed.
“It’s not like you can do it at the corner gas station.”