Border security flaw highlighted after rogue rail car rolls undetected across Niagara Falls bridge

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

After more than a decade of thickening the Canada-U.S. border in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, there are bound to be red faces among security officials on both sides of the line after a rail car trundled undetected over the border at Niagara Falls.

The Toronto Star reports an empty car that was sitting in the CSX rail yard on the New York side of Niagara Falls two weeks ago when it somehow rolled across the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, over the border and into a Via Rail station on the Ontario side that was closed for the night.

And no one noticed. Not CSX, not Canadian and U.S. border guards and not the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which is responsible for security of the bridge, the Star says.

It wasn't until Via Rail employees arrived for work the next morning that the errant rail car, used to transport finished automobiles, was discovered and reported.

"The incident . . . is being treated as an act of vandalism and remains under investigation," CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan told the Star.

The rail car likely rolled across the bridge between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., said Brent Gallaugher, the bridge commission's security manager.

Canada Border Services would not say when it was informed of the security breach but the Niagara Regional Police Service told the Star it was called at 12:47 p.m.

Police and border services searched the car and found it empty, Const. Derek Watson said.

"The report came in initially as a suspicious runaway box car, but was quickly deemed not suspicious," Watson said via email.

[ Related: Border security agreement a big deal in Canada, not the U.S. ]

Canada Border Services also appeared to brush off the incident.

"We are confident it just got dislodged as cars were being moved into place on the U.S. side," CBSA spokeswoman Jean D'Amelio Swyer said in an email to the Star.

Gallaugher said no rail car has ever crossed one of the three Niagara bridges undetected in his 16 years at the commission. The bridges are covered by video cameras but since this incident, the commission has installed an alarm tied to the cameras that sounds any time a train crosses the bridge.

Two passenger trains normally use Whirlpool Rapids bridge daily.

As the Fraser Institute noted in a study last year, border thickening has cost both countries in terms of lost business, not to mention the delays and inconveniences experienced by individual travellers crossing what used to be touted as the longest undefended border in the world.

But some U.S. politicians have sounded an alarm about gaps along the 6,400-kilometre border, pointing to a U.S. government report that reveals a lack of co-ordination between the governments' security apparatuses.

Canadian and U.S. officials launched talks last year to bolster a joint approach to border security while reducing bottlenecks through the use of common practices for screening travellers and cargo.

CBC News reported last year that a Rideau Institute study found Canada has spent an additional $92 billion on national security since 9/11 over and above what Ottawa would have allocated to the file. Spending on border security grew by 177 per cent.