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Hunter Harrison, CEO of CP Rail, adresses a Canadian Club luncheon on Monday.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The chance of a terrorist attack on a train hauling flammable goods is a greater threat to public safety than a derailment, says Hunter Harrison, chief executive officer of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

Rerouting trains hauling dangerous goods to avoid heavily populated areas, and keeping the list of hazardous cargo from the eyes of would-be criminals are keys to hauling flammable goods safely, Mr. Harrison said on Monday in Toronto speech.

"You've got a vessel that's sitting at its customer's door that's loaded with this stuff and somebody decides to tamper with it: That's my greatest fear," he said. "It can be planned to do the worst possible damage."

The amount of crude moving by rail has soared amid rising production and a lack of pipeline capacity. With this increase in volumes has come new awareness and fears of the dangers associated with moving hazardous goods in tank cars that fail readily in a derailment.

After the 2013 explosion of an unmanned crude train in Lac-Mégantic, Que., the federal government imposed lower speed limits on some trains and ordered older tank cars off the rails. New regulations include higher insurance requirements for railways, a per-tonne oil fee to create a pool to cover the costs of a cleanup, and more inspections to ensure the most flammable goods are handled safely.

However, several derailments and explosions of oil trains since Lac-Mégantic have put the spotlight on railways' safety records, and their abilities to keep up with growing demands by shippers and consumers for gasoline and other petroleum goods.

In a wide-ranging speech at a downtown hotel, Mr. Harrison said Calgary-based CP has reduced the number and severity of railway accidents, but it's impossible to eliminate all risks associated with freight trains operating at high speeds. "Can I tell you there's never going to be another one? No, I wish I could," he said.

Some cities, including Toronto, have called for Ottawa and the railways to end the movement of dangerous goods through their centres. The railways are also facing calls to make public the list of dangerous goods they haul. Mr. Harrison said he would prefer to avoid congested, heavily populated areas like Chicago, but the regions that would see higher traffic of dangerous goods would not be happy with the move. He noted railways are bound by so-called common carrier laws that forbid them to refuse to haul goods that are in compliance with with the law.

"We don't get to choose what we haul. Whatever is tendered to us, we by law have to haul," he said.

Mr. Harrison said rail remains a safer mode of transport than trucks and highways, and that making public the list of hazardous cargoes would make it easier for criminals to target trains.

"You want to give somebody the opportunity … to look at that list and say here's what that car's got in it and here's the location and here's all the bad things I can do. I don't think we want that," he said.