Skip to main content

Michael Bourque is chief executive officer of the Railway Association of Canada.

When news broke last month about the Obama administration's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, some suggested that more oil would now inevitably move by rail. More often than not, those same critics then repeated a popular myth: that transporting oil by rail is "less safe" than moving it by pipeline.

Whether more oil moves by rail in the future will be determined by a number of complex factors, including the price of the commodity, the output of the Alberta oil sands, the approval of new pipelines and the capacity of existing ones. The fact is, pipelines don't currently extend to every port or refinery in North America. Customers will choose railways in those instances that make business sense – for example, when they can easily divert oil shipments to new destinations because netbacks favour it.

But railways serve as complements to pipelines, not as replacements. Only 3 per cent to 4 per cent of the oil extracted in North America each year is moved by rail. Railways operating in Canada are legally required to transport oil under the "common carrier" obligation of the Canada Transportation Act.

The tragic accident in Lac-Mégantic in July, 2013, was a sober reminder of the importance of safe railroading practices. Following the incident, the federal government introduced more stringent rules and regulations for railway operations and responded to the industry's call for a more robust tank car standard for transporting flammable liquids. While CN and CP were then – and continue to be – among the safest railways in North America, the industry as a whole engaged in much soul searching about how to enhance the safety of the goods it transports and the people living in the communities where it operates.

Railways increased their efforts, making additional investments in new track, equipment and safety technologies, and deepening initiatives to foster a strong safety culture within the industry. They reached out to communities across the country, sharing information about the products they transport, training thousands of first responders and developing comprehensive emergency response plans. They signed mutual aid agreements with other industries to ensure sufficient equipment and expertise in the event of a transportation incident, and most recently launched the AskRail app to provide emergency personnel with real-time information about rail car contents.

While transporting crude oil by rail is a fairly new phenomenon – it's only since 2012 that the industry has been called on to move significant quantities of this commodity – there is strong evidence that railways are doing it as safely as other transportation modes. A recent report by consultant group Oliver Wyman titled Canadian Crude Oil Transportation: Comparing The Safety Of Pipelines and Railways, compared incident and spill rates of pipelines and Canada's Class 1 railways from 2012 to 2014. That report concluded that the two transportation modes have equally strong safety records when it comes to moving crude oil; Canadian pipelines and Class 1 railways collectively transported 252.7 billion gallons of crude between 2012 and 2014, and moved 99.9997 per cent of this product safely, without spillage.

This finding is consistent with the railway industry's long history of safely moving hazardous goods in this country. Canadian freight railways have also reduced the overall number of accidents on their networks by close to 30 per cent over the past decade, even though their workload increased by more than 20 per cent during that time.

If the economics change, and more oil moves by rail over the coming months and years, Canada's railways are working harder than ever to ensure that it is transported safely and are committed to making continuous safety improvements. Railways complement pipelines in moving Canada's energy products to market and are as safe as pipelines in doing so. The debate about which mode is safer is both misplaced and misinformed.