•Jan. 7, 2014—Several homes near the village of Plaster Rock, N.B. were evacuated after a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire.
•Dec. 30, 2013—A freight train carrying crude oil near Casselton, N.D. collides with one carrying grain that had derailed earlier.
The result saw fireballs shoot 100 feet into the air and 2,400 residents had to evacuate their homes.
•Nov. 8, 2013—A train carrying crude oil from North Dakota was travelling through a rural part of Alabama when 20 of its cars derailed and exploded.
Firefighters left 11 of the cars to burn themselves out overnight.
•Oct. 19, 2013—Thirteen cars of a train carrying liquid petroleum gas and crude oil derailed outside of Gainford, Alta. while en route to Vancouver.
At least two explosions and a massive fire followed, but there were no reports of injuries.
•July 6, 2013—An unmanned runaway train of 72 tank cars, loaded with a volatile crude oil, crashed and exploded in the centre of Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people and destroying half the downtown area.
With the boom in North American oil production in places like Alberta and North Dakota, and not enough pipelines to move all that crude oil to refineries, there has been a massive increase in oil shipments via rail in recent years.
But one only has to look at headlines in the past year to see that more shipping by rail has led to more derailments, including some with fatal consequences.
Unlike pipelines, rail lines run right through towns and cities—potentially bringing the danger closer to populated areas.
But is Fort Frances prepared if a shipment of crude oil were to derail here?
Fort Frances Fire Chief Frank Sheppard, who also is emergency management co-ordinator and co-ordinator for the provincial mutual aid plan for Rainy River District, said the town has been working with CN for the last two-three years to ensure a plan of action is in place for a potential dangerous goods spill.
In fact, a mock train accident will be the subject of a live exercise to be conducted here this September.
“We work pretty regularly with the dangerous goods officer—I meet with him about four times a year—and we’re pretty much in a position where we do have some capacity for response related to [a dangerous goods spill],” Chief Sheppard said.
“CN has worked in a co-operative manner with us to put a spills management kit in the town,” he added.
“It is sitting up on CN property and we have access to that at any time with or without CN people being there.
“It’s one of those item I even considered using for the roll-over we had in the lower mill yard [in October],” noted Chief Sheppard.
A spills management kit contains materials needed for booming and diking, as well as drums and other clean-up materials.
“Over and above that, we also maintain our internal hazardous material program,” Chief Sheppard said.
He added there’s no doubt crude oil and other cargo is passing through the town. And in fact, Fort Frances is one of the busiest rail ports in North America.
But Chief Sheppard is not overly worried about a serious derailment of dangerous goods here.
“There is a pretty high level of diligence from CN,” he noted. “We’ve had a really good relationship with not just the dangerous goods people, but also their environmental, engineering, and running crews.
“The communication is good, and that’s a positive thing because that usually heads off a lot of problems.”
There also are variables that fall into play when it comes to a train disaster, such as the one in Lac-Mégantic, that aren’t as much of a factor here.
“One of the differences is CN is a Class 1 railroad—their trains are staffed here pretty near all the time, so it’s not like you would have trains abandoned on a regular basis here,” Chief Sheppard noted.
“One of the other factors we have is there’s a significantly reduced speed limit through the town, and that’s largely in play because of the border situation,” he added.
“They don’t have a choice—they have to slow down to get through the border.
“There’s not nearly the speed of train movement through the town that we would see in some of these other communities,” Chief Sheppard reiterated, noting a train going through Fort Frances might be going 15-20 km/h versus 60-80 km/h through another community, such as Emo.
“So in comparison, we’re a lot better off than a lot of areas,” Chief Sheppard said. “Even if there was an impact, or a derailment, it’s not at a high rate of speed.
“And for the most part, these rail cars are pretty robust.”
Still, Chief Sheppard said it’s crucial to be prepared nonetheless.
“I would never say it couldn’t happen here,” he stressed. “It’s happened other places so it certainly could.
“But from a perspective of Fort Frances and the core population we have here, we don’t have nearly the risk threshold.
“I would be more concerned about damage to the environment than I would to people, as it sits right now, just because of the speed,” Chief Sheppard explained.
“So if there was a leak, it would probably be a much lower threshold leak and if that was the case, what we would have to do is mitigate the problem before it gets to a water course or creates environmental concern.”
The federal government announced Nov. 20 that major railways must provide municipalities with yearly aggregate information, presented each quarter, on the nature and volume of dangerous goods they transport through municipalities.
But Chief Sheppard said the town already has enough communication with CN in recent years, so this directive won’t make much of a difference here.
“Really, from our perspective, CN has always been pretty transparent with what they’ve moved through here anyway,” he remarked.
“We’ve always had a pretty good handle on the materials that are going through, and much of the planning related to our hazardous material package was related to the product that’s going through here to try to mitigate as best we can.”
Widening the focus to Rainy River District, Chief Sheppard said if a dangerous goods derailment occurred in Emo, for instance, the municipality could call on Fort Frances to help out.
“It’s really up to municipality,” he noted.
“For the most part, fire protection is a municipal concern,” Chief Sheppard remarked. “There is a mechanism in place that allows for it under mutual aid.
“Whether or not they chose to activate it would be their choice.
“And over and above that, there is an opportunity for provincial resources to be brought to bear, as well, through me as the co-ordinator for the district mutual aid plan,” he added.
Mark Hallman, director of communications and public affairs for CN, told the Times the railway is taking steps to fully comply with the federal directive to provide municipalities with information.
“CN is actively compiling dangerous goods data for 2013, including data for crude oil, based on the last 12 months’ traffic and will provide that information to a municipality’s mayor, fire chief, and chief administrative officer to help the community develop its emergency response plans, and to ensure first responders have the necessary training, which CN will help provide,” he said.
“CN does not make this list public due to security concerns,” Hallman stressed. “Prior to the protective direction, CN was supplying this information to municipalities on a confidential basis upon their request.
In the event of an accident involving dangerous goods, CN has a comprehensive emergency response plan and the resources available to address it effectively, he added.
Hallman confirmed that, in response to customer demand, CN is moving more crude oil (i.e., heavy crude, light crude, and pure bitumen) from areas in Western Canada and the U.S. to various markets across the continent.
CN’s network provides direct access to heavy oil and bitumen production areas in the Lloydminster, Peace River, Cold Lake, and Athabasca regions of Western Canada, as well as to the Bakken area in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
CN started to test the transportation of crude oils of various types to markets in Canada and the U.S. in 2010.
In 2011, CN moved roughly 5,000 carloads of crude oil.
A year later, CN moved more than 30,000 carloads of crude oil to various North American markets, and more than doubled that business in 2013, said Hallman.
But he added that crude oil constitutes a small portion of CN’s overall business. In 2013, for instance, crude oil accounted for roughly two percent of CN’s total car loadings of freight.
Hallman also pointed out CN’s solid and improving safety record.
“A full 99.997 percent of CN rail movements of dangerous goods—many of which are essential to the North American economy and communities across the continent, and include crude oil—arrive at their destination without a release caused by an accident,” he noted.
CN’s safety record in 2013 tracked that of 2012, which was the safest year in the company’s history. CN’s main-track accidents declined by more than 50 percent from 2002-12 despite increased freight volumes.
“CN invests continuously in safety training, technology, and infrastructure,” noted Hallman.
“In 2013, the company will have invested approximately $2 billion [Cdn.] in capital programs, of which approximately $1.1 billion [Cdn.] was targeted toward track infrastructure, to continue to operate a safe railway, and to improve the productivity and fluidity of the network.”
CN exceeds all regulatory requirements for safe rail operations, but is doing more.
“In the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic accident, CN reviewed all of its train securement practices in line with the directive issued by Transport Canada [last] summer,” noted Hallman.
CN also extended to its Canadian operations what is called the “OT-55 key train policy” for moving dangerous goods in the U.S.
Trains with a single tank car load of certain hazardous materials, such as toxic inhalation hazards, or 20 tank car or intermodal portable tank car loads of other hazardous materials, such as ethanol and crude oil, are subject to restrictions such as a speed limit of 50 m.p.h.
CN implemented the change on the U.S. portion of its network and voluntarily implemented the policy in Canada to achieve system-wide consistency.
CN also is doing targeted corridor risk assessments, looking at things like grades and urban proximity.