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Pt. 1: DR.-ed strangelaws or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb-train

(“Well now, what happened is that one of our Transportation Ministers did a silly thing. She, uh, went a little funny in the head. You know, funny. She ordered bomb-trains to move through our country…Let me finish, Dimitri.)


The first full week of May marked ‘National Emergency Preparedness Week’ (NEPW). While my goal was to write a simple and short blog about emergency preparedness, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of compromised public safety and illusory regulations.

NEPW serves as an important initiative and reminder for families, workers, and communities to prepare for the risks of disasters or emergencies.  Although, one does have to wonder why Enbridge – a company with a questionable safety record and that is currently purposing changes to its Line 9 pipeline, even when engineers believe there is a 90% of rupture in the immediate future – was handing out PR hotdogs at Toronto City Hall. But back to emergency preparedness and rail.

The week prior to NEPW was Rail Safety Week. As this initiative seems to be primarily a PR exercise for the rail industry it was not surprising the initiative was devoid of any substantive conversation of the major safety issues posed by rail for communities and first responders.  Sure, this same industry that was lobbying to reduce safety inspections on railcars carrying dangerous goods a month before the Lac-Mégantic, but in light of last years tragedy you would think this would be a good opportunity to address substantive safety issues. Instead the focus was solely on safety issues related to trespassing on railway property and safety at crossings. At the same time, despite the friendly safety campaign these rail companies are willing to serve lawsuits to grieving family members of those involved in rail crossing accidents; like when the $46-billion company CN was seeking $500,000 – plus interest, plus GST – in damages from Sharon Jobson shortly after her son’s fatal collision with a train. To be clear, this is not to say that public awareness and highlighting safety issues regarding trespassing and rail crossings is not valid.  It is a very important conversation, but picking just this topic to highlight shows a further lack of respect to the safety concerns Canadians are voicing.

As ‘It is our right to know, rail safety matters‘ showed, there is a systematic lack of meaningful data on the rail industry.  The obfuscation of the risk of disaster has created an inability not only on the part of the public, but first responders and municipalities, to adequately prepare for ‘worst case scenarios.’   We know that last year in the US (where data is slightly more available)  more oil spilled in rail accidents — 1.15 million gallons — than the previous 35 years combined. This ask the question, with drastic change in rail usage to the tune of a 28,000% increase in transportation of oil rail between 2008 – 2013, what is the current state of emergency preparedness and risk assessment?

Through my research I have come to the conclusion that no community (whether a large of small municipality) is prepared for a major oil by rail or hazardous material accident.  There are fingers to be pointed here, but we should be clear it is not municipalities or first responders who are at fault.


Prior to speaking to a group in Hamilton about rail safety recently, I began contacting the offices of emergency management in both Hamilton and Toronto; I had noticed that while there were specific risk assessment plans for disasters like floods, major power outages, or nuclear disaster (which a recent report noted needed serious changes), there were no detailed risk assessment plans/reports for pipeline spills or train derailments involving hazardous material. Like many other cities, both of Toronto and Hamilton have pipelines and rail running through them.  Before going any further, I want to highlight that the public servants in both offices were prompt, very helpful in answering my many questions, and shared as much public information as they could upon my request.

What I found out was that in Toronto there was no specific risk assessment plan for these issues beyond the standard operating procedures that the emergency responders have for responding to any emergency.  I was told,  “there’s no formal response document just the training that Toronto Fire, Police and EMS undertake to deal with all sorts of situations (pipeline spill & railway incl.)… The City has developed plans for flooding and power due to their relatively frequent nature and the extent of damage they cause… Nuclear planning is driven in part by legislation but also by the extremely severe consequences should one occur.  On the other hand, pipeline leaks and train derailments are statistically still very low risk events although they may have a large localized impact should they occur (as with the Lac-Mégantic example).”

I was also told that in terms of Toronto’s formal Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment, this information is not publicly shared as it is confidential.  

What I was able to find was a planning document for the ‘Dupont Street Regeneration Area Study’ where the City of Toronto retained a consultant to conduct a Risk Assessment and Management Study along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) North Toronto Subdivision in one area.  The study notes that, “This is CPRs sole freight-only route through the City of Toronto connecting to Central Canada, Western Canada, and the US. This means any commodity legally transported in Canada (including dangerous goods), in an approved container, can be moved on this line at any time…It is reasonable to assume, given the location of the North Toronto Subdivision within CPR’s network, that future freight rail traffic on this line will increase, including the movement of dangerous goods.”  Currently the Toronto Star reports, “About 40 trains travel it daily with an average of 125 cars. There have been 18 derailments in Toronto over the past 30 years, one of which involved dangerous goods.”

This study is of significant importance as density along rail corridors continues to increase in our cities as land zoned as industrial/commercial is changed into residential zoning. Railways are responsible for their own operations within their corridor, and the City is responsible for the compatibility of adjacent land uses and development. The Ontario Planning Act requires railways to be notified of land use changes within 300 m of a railway line and Railways can provide input and raise concerns at the Ontario Municipal Board, if their recommendations are ignored. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and Railway Association of Canada (RAC) have collaborated to produce a set of proximity guidelines (not laws or by-laws) and best practices for development near railways. What we have is a hodge-podge where some cities, like Toronto, have Zoning By-Laws for setbacks along rail lines in urban area, while others like Ottawa do not.  

Yet, looking at the proximity guidelines and the recommendation of the Toronto study, the standard mitigation and safety features seem to miss the main issue.  Both recommend something along the lines of a 30m setback from the railway property line, a earthen berm of some sort and possibly a noise wall on top of it. These measure have more to do with noise, vibrations, and odour than anything else. The berm is designed to deflect runaway trains from crashing into buildings, but it does nothing to address if explosive or hazardous chemicals are breached in the case of on accident (not to mention deflection walls/berms do not have a standard design relative to residential development, and are not specified by the Ontario Building Code). Again, the methodology used by the consultant weighs risk probability over risk consequence. To me, these issues shouldn’t be weigh zero-sum, they both require attention and analysis. Well the consultants did request ERAP information from CPR (more on ERAPs later) , they were unwilling to share this information despite the fact it would facilitate better planning.

Last week at the City of Toronto Executive Meeting, Darrell Reid  deputy Fire Chief at Toronto Fire Services stating they are doing training modules and doing predictive modelling (there was no discussion of foam on hand or a strong call for real time data).  One has to wonder, with old data and obscured information, how these modules and modelling can be truly effective. Loretta Chandler (the Director of Emergency Management) and John Livey (the Deputy City Manager) were surprisingly equally as vague and made no comments to address the true reality of the current precarious situation. While the City of Toronto is reviewing its Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment in 2014, this action does little to stop the bomb trains rolling through Toronto communities daily.  While municipalities lack the authority to make substantial change to rail safety (city staff conducted a legal review to confirm this) which the federal government has, you would hope they would use stronger language (as opposed to bureaucratic vagueness) when there is such a major danger they are aware of.


In Hamilton, I found again there was no specific risk assessment plans/reports for a pipeline or rail derailment beyond the high level/standard emergency operating procedures. This is because municipalities conduct their hazard identification and risk assessment based on the provincial ‘Emergency Management & Civil Protection Act’.  Section 4 of this Act requires that, “in developing its emergency management program, every municipality shall identify and assess the various hazards and risks to public safety that could give rise to emergencies and identify the facilities and other elements of the infrastructure that are at risk of being affected by emergencies.” The 2012 Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (HIRA) is the document which sets out the methodology in a ‘risks-based approach.’

This is important for a number of reasons, so bare with me.  First, with the dramatic rise in oil by rail in the last number of years and the increase in rail accidents, new data is needed for an accurate assessment of the risks posed by our communities. While the provinces risk modelling does provide for variable for changing risk, it is questionable if this is predictive enough for change in rail usage. Another issue not accounted for is resulting temperatures increase due to climate change. With bouts of extreme heat rail tracks are more likely to warp (‘sun kinks’), leading to more derailments. A recent report highlights that it’s sun kinks are a phenomenon that’s caused an estimated 2,100 train derailments in North America over the last forty years, averaging about 50 derailments annually.  This will only increase with climate change.

Secondly, at the core of the methodology is the equation ‘Risk = Frequency * Consequence.’ Understandably, there is a qualitative aspect to how these variables end up getting weighted.  Further, as I have pointed out before, accurate data is something of a rarity to obtain with regards to rail (along with non-reported leaks/spills [similar arguments can be made for pipeline spills/leaks which are not reported]). The end result is emergency management departments in municipalities (more specifically those which have them) do not have the criteria to do a specific risk assessment plan/report on derailments.

For example, here is a list I requested for the top hazards in Hamilton where railway accidents are number 15 (it should be noted they are re-evaluating them this year).


Federally the situation is not any better, with only smoke and mirrors rail safety announcements as was discussed previously. As one report noted with regards to Lac-Mégantic, “the speed of the cars at derailment make it unlikely that all the tank cars would have remained intact no matter what their class and design.”

Looking at federal regulations, any shipper of certain dangerous goods is required to have a Transport Canada approved  Emergency Response Assistance Plan (ERAP) plan that describes what industry will do to support first responders in the event of an accident involving their dangerous goods that require special expertise and response equipment. These ERAP are meant assists municipalities and local emergency responders by providing them with around the clock technical experts and specially trained and equipped emergency response personnel at the scene of an incident. As was found out in Lac Magnetic, there are serious issues with the current system, specifically in regards to crude by rail.

Under previous regulations, ERAPs were required for certain volatile refined fuels, such as gasoline and diesel when moving large numbers of cars in interconnected trains. They did not apply to crude oil or where smaller numbers of cars are transported.  New regulation require shippers to develop ERAPs for the following flammable liquids: crude oil, gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, and ethanol (along with previous hazardous material such as chorine, explosives and other exceptionally dangerous cargo). An ERAP is required when a single tank car contains one of these designated flammable liquids. Also, an  ERAP is required for any containers carrying dangerous goods filled to 10% or more of its capacity the ERAP must be submitted and approved by the Transport of Dangerous Goods Directorate. This is without a doubt a good step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

The Minister of Transport has also stated that rail carries must be complete a risk assessment to determine the level of risk associated with each Key Route within six months of the April 23, 2014, emergency directive. A ‘Key Route’ means any track on which, over a period of one year, is carried 10,000 or more loaded tank cars or loaded intermodal portable tanks containing dangerous goods Unfortunately, again this leads to a situation where the rail industry/carriers are determining what is a risk, doing internal reviews without regulatory oversight and not sharing this information with the public.  

The recommendations from the ERAP Working Group highlight how unprepared industry, first responders and municipalities really are. They note how most municipal fire services are trained and equipped to fight (Class A Fires) primarily involving materials  such as wood, paper, fabric, etc. with water being used to extinguish those fires. But, “Large flammable liquid fires (Class B fires) resulting from transportation incidents are very difficult or impossible for municipal fire services to extinguish. Examples of these types of fires would be those resulting from accidents involving release of large quantities of flammable liquids such as the 70,000 Liters carried in TC406 Super-B combination unit Tank trailers or the approximately 131,000 liters carried in rail tank cars such as the DOT 111 tank car. In many cases fire control is only achieved after the majority of product has burned off.” The report goes on to note that the resources (sufficient quantities of the correct foam concentrate, foam pumps or eductors, foam aerating nozzles etc.) and the specialized training are not found in most municipal fire departments. Further, that limited funding of both large and small fire departments will not permit them to even consider attempting to buy this specialized equipment.

This reality played out in Lac-Mégantic where at least 6.5 million litres of crude oil spilled into the surface water, soil and groundwater.  As one reporter put it, “Just as you aren’t supposed to try to put out an oil fire in your kitchen with water, you aren’t supposed to try to put out a crude oil fire with water either. But in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that is all firefighters had for the first two days of battling the catastrophic oil-by-rail fire last July… This lack of foam not only makes the job of first responders impossible when fighting these crude oil fires — it also greatly increases the environmental damage.” While the Lac-Mégantic firefighters were using water, they were helping the oil flow into the nearby lake and the Chaudière River. The 48-inch storm pipe that runs from the train yard to the nearby Chaudiere River became a conduit for the bakken oil, spewing flames and oil more than half a mile into the water. “It looked like a Saturn V rocket,” says Robert Mercier, director of environmental services in Lac-Mégantic. Manhole covers on the Boulevard des Veterans exploded as columns of fire shot into the air.

After 20 hours, the center of the fire was still inaccessible to firefighters and pools of fuel were still burning. Firefighters could do little but adopt a defensive position miles back and let the blaze burn itself out. Firefighting foam was brought from an Ultramar refinery in Lévis Quebec (180km away), and 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam finally arrived from Toronto, an eight-hour drive away. In the Lac-Mégantic accident, it is estimated that approximately 33 000 litres of foam concentrate would have been required to allow a continuous uninterrupted production of foam to be applied to the fire. As the Working Group report states, “In this accident, the relative proximity of the refinery, the availability of the required type and quantity of foam concentrate and the capability to deliver it to Lac-Mégantic in a timely manner provided the firefighters with one of the critical materials to successfully fight the large hydrocarbon fire. However, if this accident had occurred in a community in Canada where supplies and other specialized resources were not available in a timely manner, the emergency response efforts would have been jeopardized.”

This sentiment and situation is mirrored in the United States. The Portland Fire Bureau recently stated, “we’re looking at a larger area and we’re looking at an impact that is much greater than the normal large scale emergency that we see…In order to deal with a fire of the magnitude that we’re talking about with these trains, we really need some large capacity foam resources… An oil train disaster requires a continuous blanket of foam to put it out because of the amount and type of crude that the trains carry.”

Another problem the report identified is that when an hazardous material incidents occur (especially a rail incident), the ERAP number and activation phone number are often not readily available to first responders and the ERAP cannot be activated. Further, “there is no legal requirement which outlines whose responsibility it is to activate the ERAP and/or when it needs to be activated. If first responders are not aware of the existence of an ERAP for a product or if they are aware of the ERAP but it is not activated because it is not clear who has the authority to activate it, then it is of little value.” So, not only do first responders not have real time and immediate access to information in an emergency incident (they are left looking at the UN number on placards just like we can do), it is ambiguous how to activate a ERAP and when CANUTEC is required. As well, it is noted that when first responders have requested information from rail companies in previous accidents, they experienced significant delays in finding out important product/shipping information. This creates a serious danger as train manifests alone are not sufficient for planning appropriate disaster mitigation actions.

As much of our rail regulations are ‘harmonized’ across the border, the same situation is playing out there; in the recent Lynchburg, Virginia derailment, first responders were misinformed. Lynchburg Fire Chief Brad Ferguson stated, “we were initially dispatched as a vehicle fire,”  What the fire crews didn’t know was that it was actually an explosion burning 65,000 gallons of volatile bakken crude oil.

Access to information is another issue that is hindering any meaningful discussion. Even the ERAP Working Group had to deal with an absence of data on the transportation of dangerous goods in Canada. While CP and CN rail were a part of the Working Group, they did not share this information and as a result the report highlights that, “Transport Canada does not collect that information and while various producers, shippers, importers and carriers may have data specific to their operations it is not currently available to the ERAP Working Group. This means no one on the ERAP Working Group or at Transport Canada can quantify what dangerous goods are being transported, by what means and over what transportation corridors.  Without data on dangerous goods movements and volumes it is not possible to know what communities are at risk and to what degree. We don’t know if emergency response resources are located within reasonable distances to respond or what products would be encountered on a more frequent basis.”

While the Working Group did attempt to develop some basic data on the movement of flammable liquids using origin and destination information (Statistics Canada Table 404-0021) this limited data was out of date by two years. Since that time refineries in New Brunswick and Quebec have begun accepting shipments of crude oil by rail. From Oct 2012 to Oct 2013, the number of cars shipping fuel oils and crude petroleum increased from 10,952 carloads in the month to 14,689, with metric tonnage increasing from 891,932 to 1,210,174.  Where, when, and what quantity in unit trains at a single time remain unavailable. This also goes for the over 1 billion litres of ethanol which is imported to Canada each year primarily by rail. The report also noted that, “data appears to be non-existent is on the existing inventories of equipment and supplies for flammable liquid firefighting…. Having data on volume and type of firefighting foam, application equipment, etc. as well as geographic locations would be necessary to determine what current capacity exists by region and what gaps exist.”  

Subsequently, no data is available to identify communities at risk along dangerous goods transportation corridors. Nor is there a legislated rules for railway operating practices to, “identify sites along their rail lines where hazard analysis should be conducted. Some factors that would be considered are traffic volume, urban settings, mountainous terrain, and dangerous good volumes. Operating practices in these high risk areas may have to be modified to help minimize accidents.” As well, because of antiquated federal legislation and Transport Canada being unwilling to act, rail companies in Canada are not required to conduct any environmental or socioeconomic impact assessments prior to shipping not only petroleum products but any products they please.


The 2011 Auditor-General’s report identified serious faults by Transport Canada and the rail industry and found inspectors are under-trained, their inspections poorly designed, follow-up is lacking, and sanctions are missing. Shippers, meanwhile are operating without final approval in about half the cases. This is compounded by the fact that there is a serious questions if there are sufficient resources with continuing budget reductions to, “approve, inspect and maintain the ERAPs that are now in place or new ones that will result  if flammable liquids become ERAPable.” At the same time the Petroleum Industry does not support, “making all crude oil ‘ERAPable’, nor can we support making all flammable liquids ERAPable.”  Also, as was mentioned previous, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) division’s annual budget of $14 million has remained frozen since 2010. The rail safety directorate budget, was cut in by 19 per cent between 2010 and 2014, the number of inspectors has remained the same for the last 10 years. These cuts are designed to be multiple, small and atomized – not something which would make the headlines – but the combined result is significant. This means with the ‘hockey stick growth’ in volume of oil by rail there are 35 TDG inspectors.  That is not a typo, 35 inspectors for all of Canada, for all modes of transportation. The number of tank carloads of crude oil per TDG inspector has risen from 14 in 2009 to 4500 in 2013. With the volume expected to double by the end of this year, that number rises to around 9000. Together the combined budgets of the regulators are less than the 2012 compensation ($49 million) received by Hunter Harrison the CEO of Canadian Pacific Rail.




More Information at:


It’s our right to know, Rail Safety Matters

Getting railroaded with DOT-111 Tanker Trains in Toronto

Oil-By-Rail exports to US up 900 Per Cent

Lisa Raitt and Stephen Harper Still Playing Dangerous Petro Politicking With Our Communities
DOT-111 Detecting Disaster Spotters Guide
Could Toronto be the next Lac-Magnetic disaster
Oil cars on fire after train collision in North Dakota
Moving oil by rail to expand despite public concerns
Harper told no regulatory approval needed for moving tar sands oil by rail