Canadian Transport Safety Board says even current upgraded tanker car standards are inadequate for oil by rail

Recent northern Ontario oil by rail accidents argue convincingly that the unsafe Class 111 tanker cars – dubbed “bomb trains” – comprising the vast majority of both the Canadian and American fleets should be replaced in short order to prevent another catastrophic disaster like the 2013 Lac Megantic horror.

oil by rail

Typical Class 111 tanker car used to ship oil by rail.

On July 6, 2013 a 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil – said to be like “gasoline from the ground” – ran away and derailed in the business centre of the sleepy rural Quebec town, causing a massive explosion that obliterated more than 30 buildings and killed 47 people.

Since Lac Megantic, there have been a number of derailments, crude oil fires and explosions across Canada and the United States. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Yet.

Three recent northern Ontario derailments suggest we are living on borrowed time.

On Jan. 13, 23 cars derailed 30 kilometres east of Nipigon. The cars were loaded with grain, intermodal containers, and six tank cars contained propane, several of which were punctured and leaked.

On Feb. 14, a CN Rail train left the tracks near Gogoma, Ont., a village of 394 people approximately 600 kilometres north of Toronto. The train was hauling 100 Class 111 tank cars, 68 loaded with synthetic crude oil from Alberta and 32 carried petroleum distillates, according to the Transport Safety Board preliminary report. A large fire initially involved seven of the derailed cars, but when additional product was released, a total of 21 cars sustained fire damage ranging from minor to severe.

Nineteen of 25 derailed cars were breached, releasing over one million litres of crude oil (6,290 barrels) to atmosphere or on the ground.

oil by rail

Tanker cars on fire near Gogoma, Ont. after a March 7 derailment. Photo: Twitter.

On March 7, a 94-car train was carrying Alberta light crude to Eastern Canada when approximately 30 of them derailed near Gogama. Some of the cars caught fire and some crude entered the Mattagami River System.

Is it any wonder more and more Canadians and Americans who have oil tankers moving through their towns and cities are echoing Nickle Belt MPP France Gelinas, who told reporters, “For the people of Gogama, it was a very close one…They all said, ‘What if it had been two kilometres this way, we wouldn’t be there (anymore).”’

Two factors dominate the discussion of oil by rail accidents: Volatility of the crude oil and construction of the tanker cars.

I interviewed Prof. Raj Mehta, director of International Programs in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary about the nature of crude oil and its role in oil by rail fires and explosions.

oil by rail

Prof. Raj Mehta, director of International Programs in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Schulich School of Engineering. Photo: University of Calgary.

Bakken crude – produced in southeast Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Montana –  is very light and more flammable than heavier crude oils, and has been involved in a number of the derailments across North America. But the CN Rail train that derailed last Saturday was carrying Alberta crude.

According to Prof. Mehta, “Because of the impact, the heat energy vaporizes the oil and now you have a mixture of hydro carbon vapour and air together- so it’s a flammable mixture. And you have a hot object which is an ignition source and you’re going to have a fire.”

The lighter the oil, the less heat it takes to vapourize the crude, regardless of where it is produced, says Prof. Mehta.

Fire retardants could be added to light crude oils to make them less flammable, he adds, but that would present serious challenges at the refineries, which would have to remove the chemicals or alter their processes to accommodate them.

“Depending on what fire retardants you use that is going to maybe in some cases reduce the flashpoint of oil. But then you’re going to take to the refinery and now you’re going to fight with the chemical in the refinery,” he said. “If you’re going to fix one problem then you’re going to create another problem.”

Prof. Mehta points out that enormous quantities of gasoline are transported by truck in American and Canadian cities every day with a high degree of safety.

Serious problems arise only with rail transport, when during a derailment there is both heat to vapourize the crude oil and an ignition source. He suggests the solution lies with better designed tanker cars and fewer derailments.

This is an area where something can be done, as the Transport Safety Board preliminary inquiry into the derailment near Gogoma makes clear. First, a little history.

Around 80 per cent of the Canadian fleet and 69 per cent of the American fleet is made up of older Class 111 tanker cars. These are the types of tanker cars that were involved in Lac Megantic and numerous other oil by rail derailments and explosions. Transport authorities on both sides of the border have been trying to upgrade the fleets for years, but have met resistance from the oil industry, which has balked at paying the estimated $1 billion bill.

“Consequently, until a more robust tank car standard with enhanced protection is implemented for North America, the risk will remain,” the Transport Safety Board report on Gogoma noted.

In January 2014, Transport Canada formalized the CPC-1232 standard as a requirement for all new tank cars built for the transportation of flammable liquids, but the TSB warned the federal regulator that the standard was inadequate.

In fact, all of the tanker cars involved in the Gogoma derailment “were of the Class 111 tank cars constructed in the last 3 years, and were compliant with the industry’s CPC-1232 standard.” Worse yet, at 38 mph the new cars performed to a similar standard as the old cars did at 65 mph during the Lac Megantic derailment.

The TSB analysis notes that the new CPC-1232 standard “was not sufficient and that more needed to be done to provide an adequate level of protection.”

Based on the TSB’s preliminary analysis, the industry is heading backward instead of making progress.

“The TSB has been calling for tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars for several years,” said Jean L. Laporte, TSB’s chief operating officer.“ Here is yet another example of tank cars being breached, and we once again urge Transport Canada to expedite the introduction of enhanced protection standards to reduce the risk of product loss when these cars are involved in accidents.”

Transport Canada said it is working with the U.S. to develop new, “more robust” safety standards for tank cars used to transport flammable liquids.

Until those more robust tanker cars are put into service, there will be more derailments like Gogoma where crude oil pollutes the environment and catches fire or explodes.

The question Canadian and American authorities have to ask themselves is, Are they willing to take the chance that one or more of those derailments turns into a Lac Megantic?

As rail by oil ramps up, national governments in both countries need to act – and act swiftly – before one of these “bomb trains” derails in the heart of a big city, killing hundreds, maybe thousands.

Or is that what it will take before politicians commit the resources to get the job done?