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Friday, January 22, 2016

The Lack of Nuance in the Railway Safety Debate

I love railways. I’ve loved rail transportation for as long as I can remember. But my love has its limits, and the state of railway safety in Canada does leave me with grave reservations.

As an historian, I am programmed to never see issues in black and white. The world is, after all, nuanced. But the current discussion surrounding railway safety in Canada has polarized the debate and fails to see the many shades of grey that are the true basis of the issue.

Before the derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic in the summer of 2013, rail safety was a topic largely relegated to the occasional investigative journalism exposé featuring yet another safety inspector who found their job disappeared after their warnings went unheeded, a train derailed, and they became a convenient scapegoat.

But the tragic loss of 47 lives in a small Quebec town changed how we thought about railway safety (for many people, it was the first time that they did think about). Suddenly crude oil was public enemy number one. Railway companies were the big evil, despite endemic regulatory failures being as much to blame. Each affected party did an admirable job of shifting blame away from themselves and onto the other groups involved. The extensive media coverage surrounding former head of the now-defunct Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ed Burkhardt, played up the shifting of blame.

The fact is that the blame for Lac-Mégantic rests on many shoulders: the crude oil industry (for incorrectly labelling the contents of the tank cars which derailed); first responders (for failing to understand that shutting down the locomotives would release the train’s air brakes); the train crew (for failing to apply sufficient handbrakes to keep the train from moving in case of an air brake failure); the railway companies (for failing to adequately maintain the rolling stock involved, for pushing for one-man locomotive crews, and for failing to provide an adequate response to the initial locomotive fire).

Last, but by no means least, the government was to blame, for failing to provide the strict regulations and accountability which would have prevented an increasingly lax safety culture among railway companies across the country. As the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation demonstrated, the series of events were caused largely by regulatory failure after regulatory failure, a finding backed up by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives own investigation.

The lack of oversight was further illustrated this week when Transport Canada ordered CP to change the way it scheduled shifts for running crews in order to better balance work with rest periods. Crew fatigue dates back to the birth of railways, but this particular order is long overdue and is years in the making. 

Meanwhile, CP’s news releases continue to lambast Norfolk Southern for rejecting CP’s overtures to create a massive pan-continental railroad. Naturally, CP has a vested interest in courting larger business opportunities, but the public perception is of a greedy corporation seeking capital opportunities at the expense of other concerns, such as safety.

The truth is, as is so often the case, somewhere in the middle. The company’s narrowly-focused press releases would suggest that CP’s head office is entirely obsessed with a merger (or “consolidation” to use their term), but there are countless (and silent) employees whose responsibility is the safe operation of the railway - a goal which is achieved the vast majority of the time. These voices are largely missing from the media’s rail safety dichotomy: big bad railway company versus powerless communities.

On the other side of the debate, community groups advocating for rail safety can be equally guilty of black and white thought. In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a group of concerned residents in Toronto formed Safe Rail Communities, an organization which calls for “safe, transparent, and regulated rail” through increased government oversight. Their early meetings painted freight trains through urban areas as the enemy, a perspective which had more than a hint of NIMBYism to it. To their credit, their campaign has become more focused and their webpage clearly outlines their target: the “increasing numbers of black DOT 111 tank cars marked with the 1267 red diamond plaque (indicating petroleum crude)”. 

But the wider public discourse has not moved beyond seeing all tank cars as the enemy. If there is no hazmat diamond, the car is empty and does not pose much risk; many harmless chemicals are carried in tank cars - corn syrup being one of the most common.

Other groups, such as ForestEthics, appear to embrace the lack of nuance in the debate as a way of furthering their own agendas. In May 2015, a map of rail lines was brought to my attention. The map, published by ForestEthics, asks “how close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen?” The map features an overlay of rail routes the group claims carry crude oil across Canada. Along the routes, red and yellow lines denote the 1/2 mile “Evacuation Zone” and 1 mile “Potential Impact Zone” around the tracks in case of a crude oil derailment. The message is clear: if you live in Canada’s most populated areas, you are at risk. 

Screenshot of the ForestEthics rail map of the Ottawa area.

But the message is only clear through a manipulation of reality. The map incorrectly lists VIA Rail’s Brockville, Alexandria, and Smiths Falls subdivisions as being crude oil routes. In fact, none of these lines carry through-freight traffic anymore. Yes, all three do see minor local freight traffic, but this does not include the unit trains of crude oil tank cars which the website suggests they do. In fact, the Ottawa area is almost entirely devoid of freight trains. These three sections of track are the near-exclusive domain of VIA Rail’s intercity passenger trains.

When I saw the inaccuracy, I contacted ForestEthics (just as their website suggested) and brought the mistake to their attention. I never received a reply. Eight months later, the map remains unchanged. The cynic in me has concluded that ‘mapping’ crude oil traffic through the centre of Canada’s bureaucracy is too good a tactic to let accuracy get in the way. 

The reality of railway safety in Canada is complicated, a fact further emphasized by recent revelations that the government heavily redacts documents surrounding the issue in the name of corporate sensitivity. Many groups have a vested interest in the subject. The oil industry needs to ship its products. As proposals for new pipelines are turned down, the rolling pipeline of crude oil trains becomes vital to the distribution of a product that, like it or not, we are dependent on. Railway companies need freight in order to generate revenue. All levels of government need to balance corporate interests with public safety and the economy. The media need to accurately report a balanced picture of the news, but somehow condense it into the tiniest bite-size chunks for the short attention span of modernity (an attention span that is not well-suited to nuance). Communities across the country need to feel safe, but also need transportation links in order to be connected with the rest of the country. 

As in any nuanced opinion, it becomes difficult to take sides because the number of factors is multiplied significantly once one digs beyond the simplicity of black and white. Railway companies are being hounded for issues in the regulatory system and transportation infrastructure when they must share control with a multitude of other parties. Likewise, community activists must clarify their grievances in order to direct their concerns effectively, thus avoiding mistakes which dilute their message with overtones of paranoia.

Anyone who has studied history will know all too well that the more you study it, the more you realize how little you know. Unfortunately, the black and white nature of the current rail safety debate leaves no room for the nuanced complexity of reality. Put simply, to claim to understand railway safety in Canada is (more than likely) to know very little about it indeed.

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