Double Trouble in Saskatchewan

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

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.

The rapid-fire incidents echo a similar sequence in mid-winter 2015, when a pair of CN trains carrying Alberta bitumen derailed three weeks apart near the northern Ontario indigenous people’s community of Gogama, with similar explosive results.

By the grace of Great Manitou, nobody was killed or injured in any of the four accidents because they occurred outside of population centers—unlike the 2013 catastrophe that incinerated the downtown of the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47. No one was held criminally responsible for the deaths, after juries refused to convict the three employees of the defunct Montreal, Maine & Atlantic* selected as scapegoats by Canadian prosecutors.

In the Dec. 9 explosion near Guernsey, all of the breached tank cars were retrofits—old, thin-skinned DOT-111s and CPC-1232s upgraded to the DOT/Transport Canada 117R standard, with head shields and fittings designed to make them nearly equivalent to the new DOT-117J (TC-117 in Canada) standard adopted in the wake of Lac-Mégantic. Such retrofits have been deemed inadequate by BNSF, which actively resists hauling them. Transport Canada immediately issued a 30-day emergency slow order for all Canadian freight trains hauling 20 or more tank cars of crude oil.

However, the tank cars in the Feb. 6 wreck, CP and customer ConocoPhillips confirmed, were new TC/DOT-117Js.

Clearly, there is something amiss in the state of CBR in Canada. Aside from the actions of often-criticized Transport Canada and Transportation Safety Board, the country’s wicked northern winters are definitely a strong factor in these accidents.

While its investigators are still working on the Dec. 9 accident, the TSB did say in its initial incident report that the train’s automatic emergency brakes slammed on without engineer initiation, provoking a pile-up that breached cars and ignited their contents. The temperature that day was -19 Celsius (-2 Farenheit). It is well known that air brake fittings leak and break at such low temperatures, which can cause train lines to fail and emergency brakes to apply automatically without warning. Extreme low temperatures can cause rails to shrink and sometimes snap, which could in turn separate trains and provoke emergency brake applications. At the Feb. 6 incident, the air temperature was -15 Celsius (+5 Farenheit).

The pair of Northern Ontario CN pileups also occurred in Canada’s mid-winter deep-freeze and were also marked by a “train-initiated emergency brake application.” The air temperature at the first derailment was -31 Celsius (-24 Farenheit); at the second it was -27 Celsius (-16 Farenheit). In both cases, broken rails were identified as the proximate cause.

While Alberta aggressively shoves more and more oil trains across the border, Canada’s federal government cowers in fear of political backlash from a province in which the government and the oil industry appear indistinguishable.

The onus is consequently on the United States to keep its population safe from the self-evident truth that bitumen trains originating in Canada’s sub-arctic tar sands are a clear and present danger. The U.S. might be well advised to, at the very least, inspect them thoroughly for cold-weather damage to wheels, brake lines and air hose seals.

Contributing Editor David Thomas is a reporter who has covered government and society since graduating from Ottawa’s Carleton University with degrees in political science and journalism. He has written for National Geographic, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Gazette, and The Canadian Press news agency from postings in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and London, England. “Railroading has been a personal fascination since a childhood timed fortunately enough to witness the golden years of steam on the late-to-dieselize Canadian National and Canadian Pacific,” he says.

*Editor’s Note: The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s successor, the Central Maine & Quebec, was recently acquired by CP from Fortress Investments. CM&Q, Railway Age’s 2016 Regional Railroad of the Year, was created from the bankrupt assets of the MM&A. “If history is to be accurately served, the history books will also recount how a new railroad came in, and did its best to set things right, restoring service, but more important, helping a community get back on its feet,” Railway Age wrote in 2016. – William C. Vantuono