Lac-Mégantic disaster: Rail watchdog wants tougher tank car standards

The Transportation Safety Board has made new recommendations regarding how hydrocarbons like crude oil are carried by rail, including tougher standards for DOT-111 rail cars that are widely used in the oil-by-rail industry, months after the Lac-Mégantic, Que., disaster.

The agency is also demanding that emergency response plans be put in place along train routes that see high volumes of liquid hydrocarbons, and that new guidelines are created regarding which routes are chosen to transport such hazardous material.

"The TSB wants railways to carefully choose the routes on which oil and other dangerous goods are to be carried, and to make sure train operations over those routes will be safe," the agency said in a news release Thursday.

The recommendations were announced in response to "three critical weaknesses" the agency said it discovered in the rail system during its investigation following the derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic last July.

If adopted by Transport Canada, the recommendations will affect tens of thousands of older model DOT-111 rail cars that are the workhorses of the oil-by-rail industry.

The board is also urging that key train routes for dangerous goods be limited to maximum speeds of 80 kilometres an hour, and that such routes have sensors to detect defective rail-car bearings.

It also says such routes should be inspected at least twice a year.

"Change must come and it must come now," safety board chair Wendy Tadros told a news conference in Ottawa, speaking about the older tank cars used to transport flammable liquids. "A long phase-out simply isn't good enough."

The TSB made its recommendations in conjunction with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

"If North American railways are to carry more and more of these flammable liquids through our communities, it must be done safely," Tadros said. "Change must come and it must come now."

According to the rail industry, there were only 500 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail in Canada in 2009; in 2013, there were 400,000 carloads.

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt issued a statement thanking the TSB for investigating the rail disaster.

“I have instructed my officials to review the recommendations on an urgent basis,” the statement said. “We have continuously demonstrated our commitment to safety by implementing every one of the Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations arising from the investigation at Lac-Mégantic.”

The TSB announcement comes a day after municipal leaders met with Raitt, pressing to see railways, shippers and producers of dangerous goods assume full liability for accidents and spills.

As part of its months-long investigation into the disaster, the TSB issued a safety letter in September on how equipment and trains are secured when left unattended.

The 72-car train involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was unmanned when it rolled down a hill and derailed.

The TSB determined the braking force applied wasn’t enough to hold the train on the 1.2 per cent descending slope where it had been parked on the night of July 6.

The watchdog also found in the course of the probe that the crude oil carried in tankers that derailed and ignited was misidentified as a less volatile substance.

The crude oil in the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train had been listed as packing group three, the least hazardous on the scale. The oil actually had the properties of a packing group two substance, which also includes goods like gasoline that have a lower flash point and will therefore ignite more quickly.

Forty-seven people were killed in the explosion and fire, which destroyed part of the town.

The disaster led Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the railway company at the centre of the fatal derailment, to declared bankruptcy. Its assets were sold this week to an American firm for an undisclosed sum.

Proceeds from the sale will be used to repay creditors and victims, supplementing $25 million in insurance payouts for wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, fire suppression and environmental impact.

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