RAILWAY AGE, FEBRUARY 2021 ISSUE: First steam. Then Electric. Then diesel. Then batteries. Next: Hydrogen fuel cells?
Author: David Thomas
Canada wants to bring back steam to its railways, but don’t expect the return of glorious white plumes of condensation, drifting over deep-frozen prairies. This time, the steam would be the invisible exhaust of high-efficiency locomotives and self-propelled passenger units, powered by the on-board conversion of hydrogen into electricity and hot water vapor. Canada hopes to build upon its advantage as builder of the world’s first HFC (hydrogen fuel cell) prime-mover.
In a desperately irrational move at the end of its term in the winter of 2019, Alberta’s former NDP (New Democratic Party) government tried to defy Economics 101 by dramatically increasing crude-by-rail capacity in order to raise prices. Nobody outside former Premier Rachel Notley’s statist brain trust thought that was a good idea. Especially not the railways: CN and Canadian Pacific both insisted that the government commit to paying the $C3.7 billion contract price, whether or not the trains were needed. In the event, “or not” turned out to be a very wise condition for the railways.
Hard-to-detect braking system defects have rendered Canada’s aging fleet of grain hoppers a safety hazard, says a former director of derailment investigations for the country’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. NTSB. Ian Naish, who retired from the TSB in 2009, in a CBC interview posted May 15, declared, “The grain car fleet overall is quite defective.”
As Canadian First Nations protesters disrupted the flow of freight and passengers across Canada, global mining giant Teck Resources jettisoned a C$20 billion project to squeeze more low-grade crude oil from the vast tar sands of northern Alberta.
Within the space of a week, CBR (crude by rail), as well a pipeline-transported oil, has mushroomed into one of Canada’s most pressing problems.
On Feb. 6—the second time in less than two months—a Canadian Pacific tank car train carrying Alberta bitumen diluted with highly volatile petroleum gases derailed near the tiny town of Guernsey, Sask. The derailment created an explosive fire and prompted the evacuation of more than 80 nearby residents.
Following a second unexplained derailment and rupture-caused explosive fire of a crude oil train in rural Guernsey, Sask., Transport Canada ordered Feb. 6 a 25-mph limit on the speed of oil trains, dropping in metropolitan areas to 20 mph. The Federal Railroad Administration is monitoring Canada’s investigation to determine whether additional regulatory measures should apply once those oil trains cross the border on their way to U.S. refineries. As well, CN has embargoes, for 30 days, permits for certain TIH (toxic inhalation hazard) trains, citing the slow order’s impact on its network.
VIA Rail’s proposed High Frequency Rail (HFR) network of dedicated passenger right-of-way linking Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto has moved from plan to project with the appointment of a British railway expert as team director.
Adding to the flotsam swirling around the once-unsinkable SNC-Lavalin, the engineering company’s credit rating went overboard Aug. 20 when S&P Global Markets downgraded its debt to junk. This followed, by days, the ruling of a federal ethics watchdog that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke conflict-of-interest law when he tried to spare the company from prosecution for bribery.