Trains, grain and pipelines

There are a lot of intersecting issues coming to a head in the health of Canada’s rail capacity and safety. We have explosions and derailments in shipping hazardous materials, while simultaneously dropping the ball on shipment of nonhazardous commodities, namely grain.

The safety of rail in shipping bitumen, dilbit and diluents is critical. The deadly fireball of Lac Megantic, the collapsing bridge in the Calgary flood (with railcars loaded with Alberta-bound diluent perilously close to plunging into the Bow River), and numerous other recent rail accidents have heightened awareness of the need for better rail safety and regulation.

These issues are hyped by pipeline proponents arguing that we need pipelines because rail is unsafe— ignoring the central fallacy of that argument. The fossil-fuel masters of the universe are not offering us a choice of rail or pipelines. It’s both.

Even if Keystone and Enbridge pipelines were allowed to proceed, the industry would still be shipping bitumen by rail. When you do the math, the industry drive to 5 million barrels of bitumen a day, or Harper’s 6 million barrel-a-day goal, means that Keystone at 800,000 barrels a day, combined with Enbridge’s 525,000 barrels a day, means that trains will still be demanded. With Harper’s desperation to get bitumen into tankers, don’t rule out children carrying bitumen on their backs to Kitimat. (OK, maybe we can rule that out, but never underestimate the desperation.)

Of course, that is only the case if the nonstop growth trajectory for oilsands is allowed to prevail. If Alberta were to go back to the late Peter Lougheed’s planned development scenario, the bitumen project might include a levelling off of new mines while processing bitumen in Alberta. Shutting off the proposed dilbit pipelines will increase costs for the industry. That could limit the growth mania. As the US State Department Final Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone concluded, higher transportation costs will limit the rate of oil sands expansion.

Meanwhile, ramping up more bitumen shipments by rail is not easy. There are physical limits to how much Canadian rail can expand its rail. A paper delivered at the Canadian Transportation Research Forum conference in 2013 concluded that without massive investments in more tracks, the combined CN and CP existing rail lines could only accommodate another 600,000-800,000 barrels of bitumen a day—by 2035.

However, those estimates leave out another serious problem for rail. The current rail cars used for shipping hazardous materials are not safe. Both the US and Canadian Railway Safety Boards have ruled that the DOT111 cars are unsafe, needing upgrading and replacement. They need thicker walls and ideally on board systems for diagnostics to monitor all aspects of train operation. But the transportation safety boards are not regulators. They are responsible for reviewing accidents, not banning the cars that caused the accidents. It will take Transport Canada to regulate to ban these cars.

The cost for each new car is upwards of $130,000. It is estimated that 78,000 DOT111 cars manufactured before 2011 need to be upgraded. But not only will this be expensive, manufacturing new cars is not keeping up with demand. According to the industry publication Railway Age, current production is running approximately two years behind demand.

The United States is regulating to mandate safety by requiring systems called ‘Positive Train Control’. Positive Train Control involves on-board computer systems to monitor and analyse key information, prevent collisions and control speed. One of the world’s leading companies manufacturing train monitoring systems is right here on the Saanich Peninsula—Quester Tangent. Canada has not yet adopted the Positive Train Control approach. The US has a deadline to implement it fully by 2015. Canada needs to catch up.

We need to really push for rail safety and regulation. It will help protect communities, save lives, and slow down the oil sands.

There are other issues looming for rail. With the elimination of the Wheat Board, a bumper grain crop and the competition for rail cars from bitumen, prairie grain is having a hard time moving. Train cars are not available to move the crop. Farmers on Vancouver Island were alarmed to discover in December that their livestock was three days away from having no grain. Three days. Mills producing feed grains have been sharing supply as everyone in the industry recognizes that the system is in crisis. Prairie farmers are suffering as their crop cannot move. British Columbia farmers are dealing for the first time in living memory with uncertain grain supplies.

As my grandfather used to say, ‘This is no way to run a railroad.’