At a meeting with the public last night in Emo, CN representatives speculated that “ice jacking” may have been the cause of last week’s 31-car derailment on highway 602.
Although a formal investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is ongoing, CN’s evidence suggests that track, warped and lifted by ice, was the probable cause, according to Daniel Salvatore, Public Relations (ON) for CN.
Salvatore, along with CN Dangerous Goods Officer Steven Santelli and Laura Montreuil from Claims, hosted a standing room only town hall style meeting at the Emo Legion last night, for townspeople to share concerns and ask questions.
He speculated that the initial damage to the track could have been caused inadvertently by heavy machinery, farm equipment or a plow with its blade set too low, passing over the 602 crossing, causing a shift. Then, as snow was pushed under the tracks and ties, the expansion of freezing ice and vibration of passing trains could have been enough to lift the track, he speculated.
“It hasn’t been proven yet, but it’s what we suspect,” said Salvatore. “We just want to be transparent on this.”
He agreed with attendees that ice jacking would have likely developed over time. However, he noted that the track is inspected rigorously, with a visual inspection four times weekly, and mechanized inspections on record for both December and January, with that section having passed its most recent inspection, he noted.
Track maintenance and train speed dominated the evening’s question period. An eye witness of the crash alleged that the derailed train was moving faster than normal, when he witnessed its wheels pop off the track before toppling over.
“It was hauling,” he said.
According to the TSB, the train was travelling at 44 mph, in a section with a maximum speed of 45 mph. Trains are equipped with sensors, which immediately alert rail officials if crews are speeding. And when it happens, it’s taken seriously.
“99.9999 per cent of trains don’t speed,” said CN Superintendent Rob Pollon. “Alerts are set off at one mph over. The first offence is a formal investigation. The second is dismissal. Speeding is taken very seriously.”
However, many in the room agreed that even the allowed speed is too fast. While remediation crews work in the area, CN has slowed trains to 25 mph through Emo for the safety of personnel.
“Why can’t it stay this way?” asked one resident, sparking a loud round of applause from the crowd.
Track speeds are federally regulated, noted Salvatore. But municipalities can approach the government to make changes, and that’s just what Emo mayor Harold McQuaker is doing. He’s already approached Thunder Bay Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowsi, looking for assistance in lobbying Transportation Minister Marc Garneau to step in and slow the trains down permanently.
“The speed needs to be addressed,” he said.
Track maintenance was also a concern for the crowd. Several alleged seeing standing water, clay seeping up through ballast and sinking tracks.
“The crossings don’t drain properly,” charged one resident.
Salvatore noted that maintenance is a high priority for CN, which has invested $7 billion in network-wide upgrades this year.
“We invest heavily in this part of the network, replacing ties and rails,” he said. “We don’t want a derailment any more than you do. Maintaining our track is in our best interest.”
But they may not catch everything, and he urged people to report anything that causes concern. The Public Relations line is 1-888-888-5909 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Those public access routes are tracked and recorded, he said, providing residents with an accountable system to report hazards or lodge complaints.
One upgrade Salvatore was committed to backing was one residents’ suggestion of an access road, which would allow residents from Emo to Chapple to escape to the north through the neighbouring community, in the event of a larger scale disaster and evacuation order.
“Similar solutions have been found in other places,” he noted. “I can commit to you, CN would be part of that discussion.”
CN is hoping to assist in all aspects of the town’s emergency preparedness plan. As in all communities, the mayor, CAO and first responders have been provided with emergency resources regarding hazardous materials may pass through the town, and what steps first responders need to take in the event of an accident. They have access to an app, which can tell them within minutes what’s on a specific train, and in what amount. Local first responders are also encouraged to attend CN Hazmat training, to better prepare them for a disaster.
However, some residents took offence to CN and contractor crews tracking those hazardous goods through town. Early crews on the scene neglected to remove their footwear when they went into town, resulting in crude oil footprints in the Cloverleaf grocery store, and other venues.
“It’s been tracked all over town,” charged one resident. “We’re seeing it everywhere.”
Professional clean-up of the crude oil reside is just one of many tabs CN is picking up. Laura Montreuil was on hand to handle the townspeople’s claims questions. CN is covering all reasonable costs caused by the derailment, from appliances killed by brown-outs and power surges, to gas costs incurred by bypassing the closed 602 crossing to access school and work.
“We want you to know we aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “We’re going to be here until things are set right.”
“I don’t think we can apologize enough,” he said. “But apologies are just words. With transparency and action, we are hoping you believe us.”
Story updated to clarify crews that tracked hazardous goods through town.