Council passes resolution on railway tax, safety

Sam Odrowski

The town of Fort Frances passed a resolution last night that’s aimed at creating more equitable railway taxation and raises concerns surrounding rail safety.
The resolution, which received unanimous support from council at Monday’s meeting, arose out of the CN Rail derailment near Emo last Tuesday involving 30 cars, seven of which leaked crude oil surrounding the crash area.
There has been at least six train derailments within the same 40km stretch between Fort Frances and Chapple since 2013, noted Douglas Judson, who brought the resolution forward to council.
“I am concerned and I think many people are concerned about the frequency of these occurrences within a very small area of railroad track,” he remarked. “I think that there are questions to be asked . . . whether everything is being done to keep our community safe.”
“My resolution essentially sets out that we want government to consider the frequency of these incidents when it does investigations around this one,” Coun. Judson added.
The resolution also highlights the fact that railway taxation for municipalities in Ontario doesn’t properly reflect the level of burden that railcars have on communities.
“The basis for taxation of railways in municipalities has been based on an acreage standard for many years, so basically they’re taxed based on how much land area they use,” Coun. Judson explained.
“Whereas other jurisdictions . . . have moved to a tonnage mile concept, so essentially the taxation is based on usage,” he added.
“In some ways that compensates the community more appropriately because it takes into account how much traffic you’re seeing, how many trains, how long the trains are and how much is on them.”
Coun. Wendy Brunetta said that while every community would have a different financial impact under taxation based on tonnes per mile, rough estimates show Fort Frances would have millions more in revenue each year.
Council has been lobbying for a more equitable taxation model for roughly four years, when former councillor Ken Perry began investigating what other provincial standards are on railway taxation, Coun. Brunetta noted.
The taxation issue has been brought forward to ministers at many municipal conference in the past.
In January of 2017, Fort Frances’ council passed a resolution calling on the previous provincial government to address inequities in the manner in which railroad properties are taxed by municipalities. The resolution received support from 43 municipalities.
Coun. Judson said he hopes with the recent derailment, issues surrounding the province’s railways will be reassessed.
The resolution was sent to CN’s president and CEO, Jean Jacques Ruest, and Chairman, Robert Pace. It was also received by the local MP, MPP and a variety of provincial and federal ministers.
Area municipalities, Couchiching First Nation, and the Rainy River District Muinicpal Association were forwarded a copy of the resolution aa well.
While the province hasn’t indicated that they’re working on any changes to railway taxation, the resolution provides relevant safety considerations for Ontario to make.
Coun. Judson said in the context of recent train derailments, such as the 1.2 million liter oil spill in Guernsey, Sask. in January, it is important to prevent these types of tragedies.
“I don’t want to point fingers, I don’t want to do anything deemed as aggression but I think this resolution is sending a message that we are concerned about safety,” he stressed.
“We are concerned that our community is not being appropriately compensated for the risk and inconvenience of increased rail traffic and we need to consider these things and have discussions about them moving forward.”
“This is essentially about starting a discussion and signalling to higher levels of government that it’s a discussion we need to have because we keep seeing these incidents happen and it’s troubling.”
Mayor June Caul said there are people in town who can “almost touch” a train from the edge of their property, as the railway system runs through the heart of most municipalities.
“If a train ever derailed where some of these people live they would have no hope of survival because they’re that close to the track,” she stressed.
The operations and facilities division for Fort Frances determined what the 800 meter evacuation radius from Emo’s derailment would look like locally and found 80 percent of the town’s population lives that close to a rail line.
When trains started becoming popular throughout Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s they were the only mode of transportation to travel through the country, before being connected with highways.
“It’s a different game nowadays. The trains can be upwards of 200 to 300 cars carrying toxic materials,” Mayor Caul remarked. “Who knows what could possibly be in those cars and if anything derails and it breaks open, people’s lives are at risk”
She stressed that the government needs to better address the current railway situation to make them safer for those who live in close proximity.
“We have upwards of 31-32 trains going through here on a given day in Fort Frances and last year we heard that it’s probably going to double, so you take double the trains, double the capacity that they’re hauling–double the problems,” Mayor Caul noted.