Transport Canada should develop strategies to reduce the severity of derailments of trains carrying dangerous goods, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said Thursday.
Three members of the board held a news conference to detail the results of an investigation into the 2015 derailment of a 100-tank CN train near Gogama that was carrying petroleum products.
A total of 29 tanks derailed, and 19 of them broke open, spilling 1.7 million litres of petroleum, igniting a fire that burned for five days.
Disconcerting was the fact the train was travelling 38 km/h, below the 40 km/h speed limit.
“The TSB is concerned that the current speed limits may not be low enough for some trains – particularly unit trains carrying flammable liquids,” said TSB chair Kathy Fox.
“We are also calling for Transport Canada to look at all the factors, including speed, which contribute to the severity of derailments, to develop mitigating strategies and to amend the rules accordingly.”
The direct cause of the derailment was cracks in the frame of the tracks, combined with extremely cold temperatures. Previous inspections missed the cracks, leading to a call for improvements to training, mentoring and supervision of track inspectors.
“The combination of cold – it was -31 C at the time – and repetitive poundings from the wheels of heavy unit trains caused the joint bars to fail,” said Rob Johnston, the TBS's manager of Central Region Rail Operations, at a news conference in Sudbury on Thursday.
The cars in the train were built to a newer standard. That standard requires the cars to have additional protective equipment, but investigators found that “the speed of the train had a direct impact on the severity of the tank-car damage."
"The transportation of flammable liquids by rail has been on the TSB Watchlist since 2014," Fox said. "While stronger tank cars are being built, the current ones will be in service for years to come. The risks will also remain until all of the factors leading to derailments and contributing to their severity are mitigated. This is the focus of the recommendation we issued today."
In an emailed statement, CN spokesperson Patrick Waldron said CN is committed to "running the safest railway in North America.
"We learn from each incident, and have taken a series of concrete actions to improve safety in Northern Ontario, including doubling capital investments in new rail and other track infrastructure in the Gogama corridor, more strict track standards, greater use of technology, and improved training," Waldron wrote. "Nearly 100 new track supervisors have gone through classroom and field training to provide them expanded knowledge and tools to better identify track issues. We have also expanded our use of technology to monitor and inspect track infrastructure, including new digital imaging equipment that inspects joint bars and other track components.
"We’ve expanded the use of all inspection data to determine where to most effectively invest our capital dollars in order to prevent incidents. These focused improvements in Northern Ontario and across CN’s network have driven safety improvements and reduced accident rates. We will be investing $2.5 billion in 2017 across our network to harden our infrastructure and further enhance safety, targeting routes where dangerous goods travel."
While CN has replaced 44 miles of track and has improved its inspection process, Johnston said little has changed since the Gogama incident.
“Many of the same risk factors from this accident could apply almost anywhere else in the country,” he said. “That's why more must still be done.”
Fox said speed isn't the only factor putting trains at risk. What's being transported and how it's distributed across the train is another major factor.
“The TSB therefore recommends that Transport Canada conduct a detailed study of all the factors that increase the severity of derailments involving dangerous goods, so that TC can then identify appropriate mitigation strategies and amend the rules affecting key trains and key routes accordingly.”
The derailment took place in a remote area and they were fortunate no one was injured, she said. But the same risk factors exist across the country and should be addressed in the study.