The weekend derailment and explosion of a petroleum-laden train near Edmonton was the last thing the Conservative government needed. The accident comes as the federal government tries to sell Canadians on its resource-based economic policy.
The key to realizing the wealth we pull from the ground is transporting it to market. Pipelines are running into opposition from environmentalists and now rail, which once was taken for granted as a safe, viable alternative, is perceived as increasingly dubious at the same time as the volume shipped by rail has mushroomed.
A CN Rail train hauling a mixture of oil and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) tank cars, went off the rails and exploded near Gainford, Alta., about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton, early Saturday morning.
The hamlet of about 100 people was evacuated and no one was hurt. But the accident couldn't help but remind people of the July 6 disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., when 47 people died after a runaway trainload of American crude oil derailed in the centre of town and blew up, killing 47 people.
Since then, Canadians have been treated to a steady diet of news reports about derailments, coupled with debate about the safety of tank cars that transport dangerous goods and of the rail lines themselves.
While none have been on the scale of Lac-Megantic, several resulted in oil or chemical spills. The Gainford derailment came closest.
“I heard the cars tipping over and there was a huge crash that shook the house -- then the fireball,” resident Jeanette Hall told CTV News Channel.
The derailment happened 100 metres from her home, generating "unbearable heat."
“My entire front yard was on fire,” Hall said. “I can’t believe we walked away from that.”
The fire was so intense and the danger of fresh explosions so high that firefighters opted to let the fire burn itself out.
This latest accident has put CN Rail on the defensive. After all, it's experienced three derailments involving dangerous goods in less than a month.
The Canadian Press noted that two days before the Gainford explosion, a CN train derailed near Sexsmith, Alta., with four tank cars going off the tracks while carrying anhydrous ammonia. On Sept. 25, 17 cars of a CN train carrying petroleum, ethanol and chemicals derailed in western Saskatchewan.
"CN's safety record has been very solid, in terms of its main track derailments last year, they were the lowest on record," CN spokesman Mark Hallman told CP.
"The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release."
A one-per-cent accident rate for dangerous goods seems acceptable, unless that one per cent happens in your backyard.
A look at the Transportation Safety Board's statistics on main-track derailments in the first half of this year shows that while overall derailments rose slightly compared with 2012, they're well below the five-year average. And derailments involving dangerous goods dropped to 37 from 42 in the same period, with the five-year average at 43.
Greenpeace Canada is warning these kinds of derailments could become more frequent unless Ottawa really tackles rail safety, including rules for transporting oil on tank cars.
"Unless they're actually willing to bring in serious new safety measures for oil by rail, this will become the new normal," Greenpeace climae and energy campaigner Keith Stewart told CP.
"Three years ago, there was almost no oil being moved by rail. It's been growing incredibly rapidly and it's projected to keep growing that way and the safety standards in Canada simply have not kept up to the new ways to move new kinds of oil."
Hallman dismissed Stewart's safety concerns, noting the oil tank cars at Gainford remained intact; it was the LPG cars that ruptured and caught fire.
Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office said in a statement Saturday that the government has spent more than $100 million on rail safety and boosted fines for companies that break the rules.
Meanwhile in Argentina, at least 80 people were hurt after a commuter train crashed into the bumper at the end of the line at a Buenos Aires station Saturday, the same one where 52 people died last year in a similar accident, The Associated Press reported.
Argentine Security Secretary Sergio Berni said it's too early to say why the train failed to stop. The driver was given a routine alcohol test before his shift but it produced a negative result, Transportation Minister Florencio Randazzo said.
Police had to intervene after a mob surrounded the wrecked train and chanted "murderer, murderer!" at the injured driver through the shattered cabin window, AP reported.
It's tempting to compare the two. Is Canada's rail safety better than Argentina's?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.