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‘The reality is, if you look at a map, all of our business goes through Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal,’ Canadian National CEO Claude Mongeau says.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Canada's two largest railways say Bakken crude oil and other hazardous goods will continue to move through major Canadian cities because no reasonable route alternatives exist.

Executives from Canadian Pacific and Canadian National said this week that the public should not expect dangerous and potentially explosive goods to be routed around Toronto, Montreal or Winnipeg, despite growing concerns about the safety of moving those materials through heavily populated regions. The Transportation Safety Board recommended this year that railways be required to perform detailed risk analyses for different routes.

In February, railways with operations in the United States agreed to begin using a risk management system to determine safer routes for trains carrying large quantities of crude oil, and to make a number of other changes related to the safety of oil by rail operations. Both CN and CP say they are applying the same principles to their Canadian operations.

CN chief executive officer Claude Mongeau told The Globe and Mail this week that his company has been reassessing all of its corridors to analyze their risks, but he added that the work would make little difference in determining where in Canada dangerous goods are shipped.

"When we can route traffic with a view to minimize risk, we do so," Mr. Mongeau said. "But the reality is, if you look at a map, all of our business goes through Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. These are just the larger population centres. The smaller population centres, it's the same. The country was built around the railroads and that's just the hard reality."

Asked on Thursday whether Canadian Pacific could transport dangerous goods around major Canadian cities, the company's president and chief operating officer Keith Creel replied: "Not without shutting down commerce."

The safety of moving hazardous goods by rail has come under intense scrutiny during the past year, after a train carrying volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people. Officials in Canada and the United States have since acknowledged that crude from the Bakken formation, which straddles Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota, is more prone to exploding in an accident than traditional crude.

There have been calls for railways to avoid major cities when moving potentially explosive crude, and Toronto residents have expressed particular concern about a CP line that runs parallel to Dupont Street in central Toronto. CN's freight line generally parallels the border of the City of Toronto and York Region. However, routing options in Canada are limited, because most cross-country routes pass through major cities and building new track is prohibitively expensive.

A network map on CN's website shows that Ontario Northland Railway has tracks that run through Northern Ontario, which would appear to allow CN to avoid Toronto and Montreal. But a spokesman for the company said those tracks are not up to the company's standards for mainline, heavy-duty traffic and added that using them would "make no economic sense."

Claude Dauphin, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the lack of alternative routes in Canada makes conducting detailed risk assessments "even more critical." Both CN and CP said they conduct careful risk analyses.

Executives from both companies also urged the government on Thursday to establish a system in which shippers would share responsibility with the railways to ensure they have enough insurance to deal with a catastrophic accident. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has called for a pooled insurance system that could be drawn upon in the event of another disaster like the derailment in Lac-Mégantic.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said on Thursday the government would respond to the Transportation Safety Board's latest recommendations later this month.

With a report from Eric Atkins in Toronto

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified a rail line in Toronto as belonging to CN Rail. This version has been corrected.