Canada's rail safety investigator is calling on Ottawa to take steps to make it safer to haul dangerous goods by train.
Transport Canada should study factors that cause fiery train derailments – including speed, tank car design and worker training – and change the rules to prevent loss of life and environmental destruction, said Kathy Fox, chairwoman of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), which on Thursday released its report on the February, 2015, derailment of an oil train near Gogama, Ont.
The 100-car Canadian National Railway Co. train derailed on a broken track, and 19 oil tank cars failed and burned for five days. About 1.7 million litres of oil fouled the nearby river and lake.
"This accident occurred on an isolated stretch of rail in Northern Ontario, and thankfully no one was injured," Ms. Fox said at a press conference in Sudbury on Thursday. "But so long as the same risks exist – track-maintenance issues, railway personnel training, train speed, and tank cars that aren't sufficiently robust – the consequences of the next rail accident may not only be environmental."
The train was travelling at 38 miles an hour (61 km/h) – within the 40- mph speed limit.
"The TSB is concerned that currently permitted speeds are too high for key trains transporting Class 3 flammable liquids," Ms. Fox said.
The speed limit for a flammable goods train is 50 mph, or 40 mph near densely populated areas, Transport Canada says. The Gogama route has the lower limit because it is intended to be more lightly used and inspected less often than higher-grade tracks.
"When speeds are reduced, the severity of a derailment is reduced. That's well known in the industry," said Rob Johnston, who is responsible for the TSB's central rail operations.
A newly-hired track inspector lacked the experience to spot cracks in the bars that join rail sections, which failed under the pounding of a heavy train in the minus-31 weather, TSB investigators found.
"This was because CN's training program was insufficient to aid the employee in understanding all the factors that could lead to joint defects. Neither was there adequate mentoring or support for the employee during on-the-job training while in the field," Mr. Johnston said.
The 2013 explosion of an oil train in Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people and destroyed the centre of town highlighted the dangers of the fast-growing business of moving oil by trains. Governments in Canada and the United States responded by phasing out the old-style tank cars, known as DOT 111s and CPC 1232s.
But there have been several fiery crashes of oil trains using the upgraded CPC 1232 tank cars, and safety advocates are calling for tougher measures.
"Given the known deficiencies with the CPC 1232s and the fact that they won't be fully phased out until 2025, the risk is clear. Until then, less-robust tank cars, such as those involved in this occurrence, will continue to be allowed to transport Class 3 flammable liquids," Ms. Fox said.
CN said in an e-mailed statement it responded to the Gogama crash by improving the training of 100 track inspectors and expanding its use of "digital imaging" and other technology to spot track wear and fatigue.
"We learn from each incident, and have taken a series of concrete actions to improve safety in Northern Ontario, including doubling capital investments in new rail and other track infrastructure in the Gogama corridor," CN said. "We will be investing $2.5-billion in 2017 across our network to harden our infrastructure and further enhance safety, targeting routes where dangerous goods travel."
Transport Canada did not respond in a timely manner.