The photos show a dozen black tank cars thrown from the rails and tossed to each side. Crushed vehicles spew from two automobile carriers; empty platform cars lie crippled in the grass beside the tracks.
The Canadian National freight train that skipped the rails in Brockville, Ont., early Thursday morning shut down the major rail artery east from Toronto, forcing passenger service Via Rail to cancel trains between Union Station and both Ottawa and Montreal. The company brought in buses to transport some 3,600 people booked to travel on the 29 trains scheduled for the day.
Local officials said the train was travelling at about 100 km/h when it careened off the tracks about 115 kilometres south of Ottawa. The 26-car derailment occurred beside a golf course on the western edge of the community of 40,000.
It’s an unpopulated area; there were no injuries.
The derailment happened just after 4 a.m. Thursday, said CN spokesperson Lindsay Fechyshyn. The train was eastbound when it jumped the tracks shortly before it would have entered the town, where the rails rub up against a hospital, schools and residential neighbourhoods.
“It could have been a lot worse than it was,” Elizabethtown-Kitley Township fire chief Jim Donovan told the local newspaper, the Recorder and Times.
Of the derailed cars, 13 were tankers that had carried highly flammable aviation fuel, but were currently empty.
“They’re not full, but they would have some residue,” said Fechyshyn. It didn’t appear there had been any leaks or spills, she said. Two of the cars were carrying automobiles, five were carrying carbon powder — commonly used in water filtration systems — and six were empty platform cars.
Fechyshyn added that it was too early to speculate on the cause of the derailment. The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) is investigating.
Coming just days after the sombre one-year anniversary of the catastrophic derailment in Lac-Megantic, which left 47 people dead and the town’s core decimated, the incident prompted a chorus of what-if’s among critics of Canada’s rail safety program and recent measures purported to improve it.
“It is only a matter of time before we see another Lac-Megantic,” said Michael Butler, a campaigner with the Council of Canadians who regularly blogs about rail safety issues. “I don’t feel this is hyperbole or alarmist … The nature of our railway industry — and its cargo — has changed, but the regulations which are supposed to be in place to protect our communities and environment seem to be stuck in the last century.”
According to TSB data, rail accidents are on the decline. But the materials involved in those accidents are changing, though precisely how remains murky.
Transport Canada has ordered rail companies to share historical, aggregate information with local emergency officials on the types of dangerous goods transported through their communities. But that data will only be released under a strict veil of secrecy.
In the GTA, which is traversed by both CN and CP main lines, residents and municipal politicians have protested, arguing that people who live alongside the tracks have the right to know what passes by their homes. A Toronto Star investigation found that, over two 12-hour periods alone, hundreds of tankers carrying crude oil, radioactive material and toxic chemicals trundled through Toronto.
Shipments of volatile crude oil have risen dramatically. Figures provided by Transport Canada, which regulates federal railroads, showed that nearly 128,000 carloads of crude moved in Canada in 2013, compared with about 53,000 the year before. In 2009, only 144 carloads of crude were shipped.
But it’s unclear what quantities of other dangerous goods — materials such as chlorine, ammunition, radioactive materials — are transported in the country.
Transport Canada previously told the Star that about 600,000 carloads of dangerous goods were moved by Canada’s two major carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, in 2013. But on Thursday the department wouldn’t provide yearly totals for the preceding four years, citing a Canada Transportation Act section that prohibits releasing statistics that could be related to an individual carrier because the information is “commercially sensitive.”
Earlier questions about particular types of dangerous goods were met with the same response.
In 2013, there were 1,067 accidents, slightly up from the 1,011 reported in 2012, according to the TSB. Dangerous goods were involved in 144 of those incidents, an increase from 119 the previous year, as well as from the five-year average of 133.
Seven accidents resulted in a dangerous-goods release, more than double the five-year average of three. Five of the seven were crude oil.
“This increase is concurrent with an increase in shipments of crude oil by rail,” the TSB notes in its annual statistical summary.