The federal government has issued new safety guidelines for railways carrying hazardous goods after being urged to do so by the Transportation Safety Board in the wake of the fatal derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
Transport Canada announced an "emergency directive" Tuesday that requires rail operators to ensure all trains loaded with hazardous goods are run by at least two qualified people. It also said no such trains can be left unattended on main tracks and tightened rules covering the use of handbrakes and other equipment that would prevent an unattended train from moving.
The rules come as the Conservative majority on a House of Commons committee rejected an NDP effort to begin studying rail safety in Canada, with the government side arguing that the committee should wait for more information on what caused the accident and that a parliamentary study now would draw critical resources away from the investigation.
The government acted just four days after a call for new regulations by the Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the deadly accident.
"The disaster brought to light several industry practices which have caused some concerns," Gerard McDonald, assistant deputy minister at Transport Canada told a teleconference Tuesday. "Given that and with an abundance of precaution, we thought it would be prudent to implement these measures now."
He said Transport Canada will ensure there is adequate inspection to enforce the new rules. He acknowledged the department has not added inspectors despite the surge in shipments of massive trainloads of crude oil across the country.
Investigators in Lac-Mégantic are still determining what caused the unoccupied Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train to roll toward the small town early on July 6. The train, comprising 72 tankers of crude oil, slammed into the downtown, setting off a series of explosions and a fire that flattened 40 buildings and killed about 50 people.
MM&A has stopped paying for the cleanup of the disaster site, forcing the town to pick up the tab, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said Tuesday.
The town has sent a lawyer's letter to MM&A, giving it 48 hours to repay the more than $4-million Lac-Mégantic has spent so far to retain the three firms initially hired by MM&A.
"This situation is highly deplorable on MM&A's part. It's unacceptable," Ms. Roy-Laroche told reporters. "The town of Lac-Mégantic cannot tolerate this."
MM&A chairman Ed Burkhardt could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Tuesday, New Democratic Party transport critic Olivia Chow welcomed the new safety regulations, but she said more needs to be done. they don't go far enough and called for a review of the adequacy of the DOT-111 rail cars that carry 70 per cent of the hazardous material in Canada. U.S. and Canadian transport investigators have long criticized the cars as having structural weaknesses that leave them prone to leaking during an accident.
Briefing notes obtained under Access to Information by Greenpeace Canada showed that Transport Canada officials told ministers they have "identified no major safety concerns with the increased oil on rail capacity." They reached those conclusions despite several warnings from safety agencies on both sides of the border.
Most railways in Canada operate with two-person crews on trains carrying hazardous goods. Only two – MM&A and another – were allowed to use one-person crews after Transport Canada reviewed their safety protocols.
Canadian Pacific introduced many of the new federal safety measures last week in response, sources said, to an alert from federal authorities that tighter rules were imminent. Canadian Pacific is a major carrier of U.S. and Canadian oil and it transported the ill-fated 72 cars of crude from an oil terminal in North Dakota to Montreal. MM&A locomotives carried the tanker cars from Montreal toward their ultimate destination – an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
A spokesman for CP said the railway welcomes the new rules. "We are in full compliance of what was announced by the federal agency. Our railway is prepared to work with Transport Canada in looking at any future steps that will make the industry safe."
Canadian National Railway, which also transports U.S. and Canadian crude, is in compliance with three of the federal government's six new safety standards. A spokesman for CN said the railway is taking immediate steps to ensure that it is in full compliance.
The new rules will "help to reduce the risk of unintended train movements that can lead to catastrophic accidents such as the one in Lac-Mégantic," CN's chief executive officer Claude Mongeau said.
Officials for MM&A could not be reached for comment.
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha