By Roger Annis, Dec. 5, 2014
The Toronto Star has a front page story today saying newly elected mayor John Tory wants trains carrying oil and other dangerous cargos through his city to be rerouted through less populated areas. Pretty big news, even if the conservative mayor is an unlikely candidate to carry this fight very far. Indeed, the Star says the mayor was “unavailable” for follow-up comment after delivering his one-off pronouncement on the matter.
Such rerouting would cost billions of dollars in new railway construction. Also, those communities upon which new, dangerous cargo rail lines would be imposed might, just maybe, say ‘no thanks’.
The Star also reports that the rail companies and Transport Canada are continuing to stonewall munipalities (and provinces?) over the release of studies of risk assessments of the movement of dangerous cargos. It writes:
In Toronto, the CP rail line runs through the city along Dupont St., while Canadian National’s line runs across the northern GTA, roughly parallel to Highway 407. Residents in downtown neighborhoods where trains carrying dangerous goods frequently travel have been clamoring for more information since the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic train derailment disaster, which killed 47 people. But neither Transport Canada nor the rail companies will provide the details they want, saying the information is commercially sensitive.”
The newspaper writes further:
Under an April 2014 emergency directive, rail companies must conduct a risk evaluation on every route that carries 10,000 or more tankers bearing dangerous goods per year, along with trains holding 20 or more carloads of dangerous goods.
A Transport Canada spokeswoman told the Star the risk assessments are reviewed by the federal regulator, but are not made public because the information still belongs to the rail companies and the documents “contain sensitive commercial information.”
The railways are sticking to their guns that they will only meet their supposed requirement to provide dangerous cargo information to municipalities on condition that the latter sign confidentiality agreements. CN says 360 municipalities, including Toronto, have signed on. Only one has refused–Windsor, Ontario. (It’s not clear from the Star report if the numbers are for Ontario or for all of Canada.) The Star writes:
Windsor Fire Chief Bruce Montone said he has yet to be authorized by city council to sign the document due to the last clause, which stipulates that the individual signing the agreement agrees that if they violate the agreement, CN can seek an immediate injunction in court.
“We would be giving up our inalienable right under the Charter to argue our case. That’s the piece that’s difficult,” he said. “We acknowledge that they can take injunctive action, and we won’t disagree with that. But who knows what the circumstances might be (for revealing information) …This is removing our ability to undertake due process.”
Unbelievable. What a show of feigned concern over Lac Mégantic that federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has been staging during this past year and a half.
One of the very big problems for CN and CP to transport oil from the west to the east via the shortest route (on Canadian soil) is that they gave up their lines through the Ottawa Valley over the past 20 years. CP’s abandonment is quite recent; CN’s was 20 years ago. Oops, now we have a surge of oil rail traffic from western Canada and U.S. to Montreal and points east with nowhere else to direct it but through Toronto, be it via Michigan through Windsor and Sarnia or across and down from northern Ontario. There is an interesting Star article from earlier this year detailing the line abandonments. Excerpt here:
The second malady is line abandonment, which has spread aggressively since the 1970s. CP is ripping up its Ottawa Valley main line and, as a result, sending western crude oil bound for eastern refineries through Toronto, where it meets the flow of crude and ethanol coming from the U.S. via Windsor. This makes the trip 250 kilometres longer, strains CP’s busy southern Ontario network and increases the safety risks.
CN abandoned its Ottawa Valley line back in 1995 and has sent traffic for Montreal and points east through Toronto ever since. Its Toronto-Montreal line is busier than CP’s, handling numerous Via Rail passenger trains and all manner of freight, including U.S. crude oil entering Canada at Sarnia.
Today, another 975 kilometres of track is slated for scrapping. This includes the original CN Maritime main line. When the Plaster Rock derailment closed its primary Maritime freight artery, CN sent all Atlantic Canadian traffic, including crude oil, over this alternate route, proving its strategic value.
If I were a rail or an oil company executive in Canada right now, I would be praying very hard that another oil train disaster does not happen. Their disastrous oil by train expansion projects are hanging on very thin ribbons of steel.
I have a vague recollection from my younger years of a CN rail line that crossed central-northern Quebec and connected to the CN main line somewhere in northern Ontario or in Winnipeg. Turns out my recollection was good, but that line, built originally as the National Transcontinental Railway some 100 years ago and merged into CN rail later, has also been abandoned, in bits and pieces over the years. You can view an historic map of the line here. CN’s present-day route map is here. Like CP Rail, CN’s transcontinental connection in Ontario runs through Toronto.
This news from Toronto recalls the complaints of some mayors in the Vancouver region during the past year about the location of the BNSF rail line that carries coal and some (not a lot) of oil into the region from the U.S. along the Pacific coastline. They want the line moved inland by a few kilometers (you can’t go very far inland at all before bumping into the Coast Mountain Range) and modernized. But who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new, rail line that doesn’t have a lot of traffic (less than 20 trains per day in total) unless there is lots of anticipated growth? The largest cargo on the line presently is coal, and we know where the future of that lies, as in ‘not so rosy’.
The business case and financing issues involved in a line relocation inland are troublesome details that the mayors overlook mentioning. I’m thinking here of the previous mayor of Surrey, Dianne Watts, who annointed her successor. When Mayor Watts mentioned last year (faintly echoing the demands of transportation experts going back decades) the creation of a fast passenger rail service to connect Vancouver to the large U.S. cities all the way to California, it sounded like she was serious about moving the rail line. But I can’t help but conjure an image of dazzling baubles being dangled before the citizenry.
Presently, Amtrak takes four hours to reach Seattle. An auto can make it in two and a quarter hours, plus whatever is the border wait time. Amtrak runs supplementary buses that are much faster than the train. Sadly in BC, we have federal and provincial governments that couldn’t give a hoot about rail passenger traffic. They have done nothing to promote it; worse, they have closed services and allowed rail lines and service to deteriorate to the point where closure seems just plain good sense. Who would want to travel in slow, dilapidated passenger trains over slow and dilapidated rail lines except for retired folks with a love of train travel and time on their hands?
The past and present mayors of Surrey are very close to the federal government. Dianne Watts will be a candidate of the Conservative Party in next year’s federal election. This is who we will expect to lead the very big, radical and necessary transition to railway travel to replace trucks and cars on highways? Not a chance.
As for the ‘green’ city council of Vancouver, I’m not aware its majority party has an opinion on the whole matter. If it does, it didn’t voice it during last month’s municipal election.
See also: Rail realigment in Surrey: Whose interests will be served?, by Roger Annis, Dec. 7, 2013