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Does Canada have a rail safety problem?

A train derails and sends five cars — and a bridge — splashing into the Wanapitei River. Another catches fire, rolls into a small Quebec town and explodes, taking much of the community’s downtown core with it.
A train derails and sends five cars — and a bridge — splashing into the Wanapitei River. Another catches fire, rolls into a small Quebec town and explodes, taking much of the community’s downtown core with it.

These frightening scenarios, and, in the case of Lac Mégantic, Que., tragic results have put rail safety at the top of everyone’s mind this summer.

There’s no doubt that the utmost should be done to minimize the risk associated with transporting dangerous goods. Tons and tons of flammable, combustible, explosive and noxious substances are transported daily on our roads, rails and waterways.

As toxic and potentially dangerous as these substances are, moving them from place to place is a necessity. They keep our machines running, our factories pumping and, ultimately, our coffers full. As much as we would like society to function without a footprint — to be green and utterly safe, that just isn’t reality.

And so, we must accept there is an inherent risk in their transportation, regardless what form that transportation takes.

Accidents happen, they will continue to happen and there’s only one thing that can be done about it: Minimize the risk.

When federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair rolled into town on a northern tour this month, alongside NDP celebrity Olivia Chow, they were here for one thing — to talk rail safety. And they even brought along a solution, arguing Canadian municipalities should be notified when toxic substances are being transported through a community.

Mr. Mulcair, the question has to be asked: To what end?

It would take an entirely new municipal department to track the comings and goings of every rail car and transport truck carrying something noxious, and nothing could conceivably be done with that information anyway.

All the ire and criticism in the world won’t change the fact no one knows exactly what happened in Lac Mégantic and no one will know for quite some time.

The issue must be addressed with reason and investigation, not pithy quotes and photo ops.

The damage wrought in Lac Mégantic’s downtown core has some eyeing Sudbury’s downtown railyard — where can often be seen the same tank cars that exploded in Quebec.

Proponents of relocating the yard have latched onto Lac Mégantic as an object lesson. No longer is the proposed endeavour about beautifying the downtown and opening up space for development.

They are attempting to reframe the relocation as a safety necessity, and they’ve gotten enough traction with the idea that they convinced the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation to ask auditing firm KPMG whether a feasibility study was worth the cost.

Likely much to the proponents chagrin, the firm found the it made little sense. Although relocation would open up about 50 acres of prime downtown real estate, there’s not much bang for the buck on the potential billion-dollar pricetag.

Some have questioned KPMG’s costing, suggesting the price would be closer to $235 million. But really, when you’re talking numbers that large, for an endeavour with little return for either the city or the companies involved, whether it’s $235 million or $1 billion, the point is moot — it is unfeasible, plain and simple.

But in this discussion of solutions to Canada’s rail safety challenges, one glaring question remains unanswered: Does Canada actually have a rail safety challenge?

Derailments, like accidents, happen. There’s no guaranteed way to prevent them, all we can do is minimize the risk.

As for Lac Mégantic, there are too many questions that need to be answered before talking causes, let alone solutions.

Wait for the investigation. If Canada has a problem with rail safety, the answers could very likely be found there.

But let’s put the brakes on talk of solutions — and the attendant whiff of opportunism that talk carries — until we’ve determined if there’s even a problem.


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