The federal government is mulling a plan to require new electronically controlled air brakes for rail cars that haul dangerous goods such as crude oil and ethanol after a series of explosive oil-train derailments in Canada and the United States.
A consultation document sent to the railway transportation industry last month laid out Transport Canada's proposal for a new class of tank car, including the new air brake system and full head shields to prevent punctures. Older-model DOT-111 tank cars have been heavily criticized as prone to puncture and corrosion.
Electronically controlled air brakes are favoured by some rail-safety advocates because they allow an engineer to apply the brakes on all of a train's cars at the same time – regardless of how close they are to the locomotive.
In contrast, traditional air brakes rely on a signal that begins from the locomotive and moves car by car toward the back of the train. On longer unit trains such as those typically used to haul crude oil, rail cars near the back of the train won't receive the signal as quickly, increasing the risk of a derailment when the brakes are applied suddenly.
Don Ross, who led the Transportation Safety Board's investigation into last year's rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., said the agency generally supports the use of the electronically controlled brakes because they can improve rail safety, particularly on longer trains. "It's encouraging, now, that they've got out for discussion a very good standard," Mr. Ross said in a recent interview.
"We would be very happy to see the industry adopt that."
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told The Globe and Mail on Friday that she had already begun consultations on the matter, but has so far heard that the industry does not believe electronically controlled air brakes are necessary. "The ones that I've been speaking to say it's too difficult to implement in the North American market," Ms. Raitt said, adding, "That's the consultation so far, but we're still gathering information right now."
One concern with electronically controlled brakes is that the system would need to be installed on all of a train's cars for it to function properly, a factor that would limit railways' flexibility in assembling longer or mixed trains.
In addition to the new air brake system, the proposed new standard includes full head shields to prevent puncture, improved top-fitting protection for the pressure release valve, mandatory thermal jackets to prevent overheating, and new standards for bottom outlet valves to prevent leaks during an accident.
The standard goes beyond requirements announced in April for a three-year phaseout or retrofit of pre-2011 tank cars used to haul crude oil. Those rules included half-head shields, top-fitting protection and thicker steel.
The new proposal would give industry until May, 2020, to start using the next-generation cars to move the most dangerous flammable liquids, classified as Packing Group 1. New or retrofitted cars would be required for moderately dangerous flammable liquids by May, 2022, and for all flammable liquids by May, 2025.
A spokesperson for Canadian Pacific said on Friday that the company is evaluating Transport Canada's proposal, but did not comment on any specific aspect of the proposed change. Canadian National said it is reviewing the proposal and would provide comments to the regulator as part of the consultation process.
Last month, U.S. regulators issued three possible requirements for next-generation DOT-111 tank cars.
The toughest standards proposed by the U.S. are similar to the Transport Canada proposal and include electronically controlled air brakes.