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Hazardous train freight shouldn’t be kept secret, expert says

Mar 15, 2014 10:04:14 PM - thestar.com

A leading train expert says there’s no reason why the proportion of rail cars containing hazardous goods that pass through Toronto and a list of those goods shouldn’t be made public.

“I really just don’t understand why they don’t do this. There has got to be a way to negotiate this between the feds, the companies and the communities to ensure security,” said rail transportation consultant Greg Gormack, who has done research for CP, CN and the Canadian government.

(Rail companies) don’t want to release any data,” he said. “But the problem here is that they operate in the public sphere (and) they are not responding to community concerns, which are legit.”

Following last summer’s disastrous derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that killed 47 people, railway companies are now required to brief municipal officials on the hazardous goods being transported through their territory to help with emergency planning.

In December, CN provided Toronto officials with a list of dangerous goods being transported by rail as well as a percentage of total freight cars that carried dangerous goods through the city in 2013. But neither the city nor the railway will make this information public.


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“Due to concerns over security and customer confidentiality, the information is shared with those agencies that need to know it,” said CN spokesperson Jim Feeny. “Making it public would not in any way assist emergency preparedness.”

“I am not in a position to release security-sensitive information provided to local first responders to reporters,” wrote CP spokesperson Ed Greenberg.

City Councillor Josh Matlow, who has a CP rail line running through his ward along Dupont Ave., rejects the railways’ safety argument.

“All this is being done in a cone of silence. They will always point to security when you ask them even basic questions,” he said. “We’re not asking the railways to disclose any information that could make the public vulnerable, in fact we’re asking them to release information so the public can make informed decisions about their safety.”

Councillor Karen Stintz, who is running for mayor, wouldn’t say whether she wants the information released.

“I would want to work with Toronto Fire to make sure we share whatever information we could share that would lead to greater safety conditions for residents,” she said.

None of the other mayoral candidates responded to questions about the release of information on hazardous goods.

Many have pointed out that what’s in those rail cars is already public.

“Anybody can go out and stand by those rail lines and observe those cars. (Because) they have to be placarded, you can tell what’s moving,” Gormack said. “If the railways want to make people understand how safe they are or safer they can be, then it behooves them to start speaking to the communities openly.”

This week, Hamilton fire chief Rob Simonds revealed that 7 per cent of the railcars that passed through his city last year carried dangerous goods. Ajax’s mayor Steve Parish has pledged he will make this information public as soon as he receives it from the railway.

But Toronto fire chief Jim Sales will not reveal what’s travelling through Toronto along the rail corridors parallel to Dupont St. and Steeles Ave.

“The data belongs to CN,” wrote his spokesperson, Toni Vigna, in an email. “Toronto Fire Services is not in a position to release.”

But CN spokesperson Feeny says the city has the power to release the information, but that CN asks them not to.

“We ask that it not be shared beyond the people that need to have it in order to respond to emergencies that happen,” Feeny said.

Gormack says Canada’s rail infrastructure is in dire need of investment. As crude oil shipments increase, there hasn’t been a similar uptick in maintenance.

We’ve got this boom in crude oil — both from the States and from western Canada — and it’s all flowing through Toronto,” Gormack said. “I’m not an alarmist, but a derailment can occur anywhere. What would happen if a train derailed say over the bridge across Yonge St. or Avenue Rd, right in the heart of the city? It would be cataclysmic!”

Suri Weinberg-Linsky is a member of the Weston Community Coalition and has grown increasingly worried over the last few years as she’s noted the increase of oil tankers on the railway that run near her home.

“You can tell what’s on those cars by what’s written on the side, and it kind of freaks you out,” she said.

Weinberg-Linsky and her husband live on one side of the Georgetown corridor and have a business on the other. Recently, her husband was stopped at a crossing and counted 120 cars in a single train — far longer than trains had been previously — and it took 10 whole minutes to pass.

“It’s by the grace of god that nothing major has happened,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating dealing with the railways … everything’s a hush-hush secret but it’s our lives we’re talking about.”

Canada, Ontario: (Latest Stories)