The wheels of government can turn slowly – and in Canada, they were far too slow when responding to the threat to public safety posed by the growing business of moving crude by rail.
Nine months after the explosion of an oil-laden train killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Que., federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has announced regulations that will force the industry to take the most dangerous rail cars out of service immediately, and give it three years to retire or retrofit other outdated cars – known as DOT-111s – that were built before safety standards were raised in 2011.
A three-year phase-out of pre-2011 DOT-111 cars is more than enough time for industry to adapt. Some are already going further and faster. CP Rail chief executive Hunter Harrison has said the old cars should be immediately retired from carrying crude and ethanol. Irving Oil Ltd. – which was due to receive the crude train that exploded at Lac-Mégantic – has set an end-of-year deadline for shipments to its Saint John refinery to meet post-2011 standards.
But Ms. Raitt has also taken other steps, arguably more important ones, to reduce the risk that the crude trains will be involved in high-speed accidents. In her press conference on Wednesday, the Minister announced that trains carrying hazardous materials will have to slow down, with a maximum speed of 80 kilometres an hour and slower in populated centres. As well, Transport Canada issued a list of inspection and maintenance orders, and a requirement that companies conduct a full risk assessment for all routes travelled by hazardous-goods trains.
Ottawa is also requiring oil companies and other shippers to more clearly identify the type of product they are loading, including the volatility and other risk factors – and to use the safest cars for the most volatile types of crude.
These new regulations complement a raft of orders that the government issued in the immediate aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, new rules prohibiting some of the most egregious safety practices that led to the disastrous crash. Taken together, the government appears to have addressed the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board, which applauded Wednesday's announcement but said it will study the details to fully assess it.
Ms. Raitt is actually leading the Americans on the requirement to phase out or retrofit the older rail tanker cars. The U.S. government still hasn't come up with a plan, and may take several more months to do so. The Harper government is to be commended for its actions in improving rail safety, though they were asleep at the switch before last summer's deadly accident. Vigilance – and a robust inspection effort by Transport Canada – will be required to ensure good policy translates into best practices.