On January 23, 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) made three recommendations to Transport Canada (TC) that were identical to those issued by its US counterpart, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to improve the safe transport of crude oil by rail. The recommendations arise from the TSB's ongoing investigation into the July 6, 2013, disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where an unattended unit train1 with 72 crude oil tank cars rolled down a hill and exploded upon derailing in the town's centre, killing 47 people and destroying many buildings.

The TSB is an independent federal agency that investigates rail, marine, pipeline and air accidents. Its recommendations are not binding on TC or the rail industry. The federal transport minister has 90 days to respond to the recommendations.

In recent years the volume of crude oil shipped by rail has increased dramatically in North America. For instance, in Canada there were about 500 car loads in 2009, while in 2013 there were over 160,000 car loads. In North America roughly 1 million barrels a day of crude are currently moved by rail. Volume is expected to grow to 4.5 million barrels a day in the next 10 years. Given this significant projected growth, the TSB has expressed concern that infrastructure and operating conditions may not ensure a safe rail system, especially with the increased use of unit trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids through urban areas and over long distances. 

Tougher standards for Class III tank cars

There are about 228,000 Class III tank cars in service in North America. These types of cars typically carry liquid goods, most commonly flammable liquids and corrosives. Many of the older Class III tank cars do not have top fitting protection or heat shields, and are not jacketed. When involved in an accident, these older Class III cars are particularly vulnerable to releasing their contents. The TSB has been commenting on the vulnerability of the older style Class III cars for about 20 years. Although the rail industry has adopted a number of safety enhancements for new Class III tank cars, a large portion of the Class III tanker car fleet is the older, more vulnerable model.

In Lac-Mégantic, 63 old-style Class III cars derailed and 95% of them released product due to tank car damage. 

The TSB has recommended that TC and the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) require that all Class III tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, not just new ones, meet the modern enhanced protection standards that significantly reduce the risk of product loss when these cars are involved in accidents.

Route planning

The rail industry has for many years undertaken safety assessments of potential routes for transporting  dangerous goods. Factors considered include the nature of the hazardous product, the volume being transported, train speed, passenger traffic on the route, railway infrastructure, geography, environmentally sensitive areas, population density and emergency response capabilities along the route. However, unlike the US, the undertaking of formal route safety analysis for dangerous goods transportation is not mandatory in Canada (but is nevertheless followed by a number of Canadian railways).  

The TSB has recommended that TC set stringent criteria for operating trains carrying dangerous goods and that it require railways to conduct formal route safety planning and analysis as well as perform periodic risk assessments to ensure risk control measures work.

Emergency Response Assistance Plans

The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992 requires that an Emergency Response Assistance Plan (ERAP) be in place for certain dangerous goods that pose a higher-than-average risk when transported in certain quantities. An ERAP is a comprehensive emergency response plan where the roles, resources and priorities are defined ahead of time. The types of dangerous goods requiring an ERAP are those that typically require special expertise, resources, supplies and equipment if involved in an accident. Presently an ERAP is required for transporting diesel, gasoline or aviation fuel, but is not required for transporting crude oil.

The TSB noted that during emergency response efforts in Lac-Mégantic, the local fire fighters estimated they would need about 33,000 litres of fire-fighting foam concentrate to be able to continually produce foam to fight the fire caused by the derailment. As no concentration was available in Lac-Mégantic, a supply was brought in from a refinery about 180 kilometres away. The TSB noted that this was critical to successfully fighting the fire in Lac-Mégantic. However, it also noted that if a similar accident occurred in a community in Canada where such supplies and other specialized resources were not available in a timely manner, emergency response efforts could be jeopardized.

The TSB has therefore recommended to TC to require ERAPs for the transportation of all large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons, including crude oil.

Comment

The TSB recommendations came a day after municipal leaders met with the federal transport minister to press for railways, shippers and producers of dangerous goods to assume full liability for accidents and spills. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities responded to the TSB’s recommendations by underscoring the need for urgent action to ensure the safe movement of dangerous goods by rail. The federation has been calling on rail companies and TC to conduct a comprehensive review of possible safety risks to cities and communities posed by transporting dangerous goods by rail.