Photo: flickr/ Randen Pederson

Anyone who has been trackside in the last few years will have noticed the increase in tanker car traffic. I can remember when ethanol unit trains were a photographic novelty, but today crude oil trains are the norm.

The trains are easy to spot: long, eastbound consists of tanker cars, often with a mix of locomotives at the front. To be doubly sure, take a look at the little red hazmat labels on the tankers, “1267” denotes crude oil. Normally an upsurge in rail traffic would be cause for celebration, but the case of oil is different.

In the past few years, the increase in crude oil transportation by rail has seen an increase in spectacular derailments. Tanker cars are slightly top-heavy, which makes them unstable. Also, the DOT-111 tanker design, despite numerous design improvements, is not up to the task of carrying crude — it breaks too easily. The result, most dramatically in Lac-Mégantic, has been destruction, disruption, and a return to railways being public enemy number one.

Railway safety in Canada has long been a controversial issue. The fact is that we do seem to have a great number of derailments. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a notification of a major derailment shutting a track down for days while crews clean it up. Thankfully, most of these incidents take place in remote, unpopulated places I have never heard of, but a few are near urban areas.

It is this sort of urban derailment, where a crude oil train derails in a residential area, that industry watchers are waiting for. Statistically speaking, it is only a matter of time.

In Toronto, residents along the CP North Toronto Sub are becoming increasingly unhappy with their railway neighbour’s daily crude oil train, fearing a Lac-Mégantic literally in their backyard. CN also moves one train of oil through Toronto each day. Neither company has much choice, their transcontinental lines must now pass through Toronto. Until 20 years ago, both had alternate routes (CP via Sudbury, North Bay, and the Ottawa Valley; CN via Cochrane, La Sarre, and northern Quebec) which have since been ripped up. Until this changes, it is Toronto or bust.

What can we do?

The trucking lobby would love to see railways crippled with regulation. Highway 401’s traffic congestion could certainly do with a few more jack-knifed tractor trailers to cripple the daily commute.

The pipeline lobby would love to see controversial new projects built across unspoilt wilderness and aquifers. Besides, why worry about a 100-tanker car oil spill, when you can have a virtually endless one because a pipeline’s safety valve failed?

The truth is, Canada’s railways need to improve track inspections and maintenance. For every crude oil train that jumps the tracks, countless other freight trains, some carrying even more hazardous materials (chlorine anyone?), are derailing with little media coverage. Until we can learn to live without oil, we are going to need to move crude to refineries in order to feed our addiction.

Which finally brings me to “A Danger on Rails” a New York Times op-ed about the risk crude oil trains pose to Albany and New York City. Albany’s refineries are the final destination for most Bakken (the name of the oil fields in the Dakotas) oil trains in both Canada and the U.S. Talking to a variety of conservation groups, the piece outlines the environmental and human risks that these trains pose. Missing, however, was any mention of the railway companies themselves.

I am always uneasy about the crude oil train debate. I am a strong advocate of rail, which makes me automatically wary of any group trying to criticize rail operations. However, I do believe that railway companies do need to take steps to improve the safety of their operations, be it better track maintenance, shorter trains, or the rerouting of dangerous goods.

Further, I think that the DOT-111 tanker cars have sufficiently proven their inadequacy. As much as I believe that rail must play an important part in our future, we need to seriously rethink how we move oil by train.


This piece originally appeared on Thomas Blampied’s Railway World and is reprinted with permission.

Thomas Blampied is an author and photographer specializing in rail transportation. He has published four books on railways in Ontario. His most recent book, Call of the Northland, examined the Ontario government’s proposed divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and was released in September 2014. He has studied extensively in both Canada and the U.K. and is currently a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Toronto.

Photo: flickr/ Randen Pederson