Current speed limits for Canada’s oil-carrying freight trains may be too high to prevent serious accidents and should be re-evaluated, the Transportation Safety Board said Thursday as it released the findings of its investigation into a fiery 2015 derailment in northern Ontario.
The TSB said its review of the incident that dumped 1.7 million litres of crude oil into the local ecosystem has raised concerns about the existing Transport Canada rules, particularly as they apply to older train cars that are expected to continue carrying oil and other potentially dangerous goods for years to come.
The February 2015 derailment in a remote, wooded area near Gogama, Ont., about 80 kilometres south of Timmins, Ont., sent 29 cars hurtling off the tracks.
No one was injured, but the TSB said the crash breached 19 cars, causing the massive oil spill and igniting fires that burned for five days.
At a press conference in Sudbury, Ont., on Thursday the board said the derailment was caused when two joint bars used to connect pieces of rail failed.
The TSB attributed the failure in part to poor maintenance practices, but said speed also played a role.
TSB Chair Kathy Fox said the train was travelling at 61 kilometres an hour at the time of the derailment, three kilometres below the 64-kilometre maximum set for that stretch of track.
“The TSB is concerned that currently permitted speeds are too high for key trains transporting Class 3 flammable liquids,” Fox said.
“We are recommending that Transport Canada study all factors that increase the severity of derailments involving dangerous goods, including speed, that Transport Canada develop mitigating strategies, and then amend the rules accordingly.”
Transport Canada currently allows freight trains carrying dangerous goods to travel at a maximum speed of 80 kilometres an hour everywhere, and at a maximum of 64 kilometres per hour through densely populated areas and where dangerous goods are being transported in older tank cars in higher risk zones.
Rob Johnston, the TSB’s manager for central regional operations, said the Gogama derailment was reminiscent of the 2013 crash in Lac Megantic, Que., that saw sections of the town burn to the ground.
The tank cars involved in the Gogama derailment featured tougher steel and were built to a higher standard than those involved in the Lac Megantic disaster, he said, but added they still lacked certain key features and were vulnerable to damage at higher speeds.
Johnston said the derailment breached the shells on eight cars, which caused an initial oil spill and started a large “pool fire.”
More oil spilled when seven cars lying in the fire sustained “thermal tears,” he added. Johnston did not describe exactly how the other four breached cars were damaged.
The federal government has announced tougher standards for tank cars carrying crude oil and accelerated the process of removing potentially unsafe cars from the tracks, but Fox said the type involved in the Gogama crash will still be in use until 2025.
While she said speed is a key factor, she said the board is urging Transport Canada to study all variables including the type of product on board and how it’s distributed within the train.
Johnston said another factor at play was allegedly shoddy maintenance practices at CN Rail, the company that owned the train involved.
He said a newly hired assistant track supervisor wasn’t given the proper training or support to spot the fact that the joint bars were deteriorating.
“There was nothing in CN’s training that provided him with information to … look for additional defects in the course of his monitoring,” Johnston said.
Johnston said CN has since taken numerous steps to beef up its training protocols, as well as replaced more than 70 kilometres of track in the area.
CN said it has learned from the derailment and has put time and money into safety improvements.
“These focused improvements in Northern Ontario and across CN’s network have driven safety improvements and reduced accident rates,” the company said. “We will be investing $2.5 billion in 2017 across our network to harden our infrastructure and further enhance safety, targeting routes where dangerous goods travel.”