Railways Insist Hazardous Material Lists be Kept Secret
In November last year, in response to intense pressure from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), Transport Canada issued a directive requiring the major railways, Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, to share lists with municipalities about the nature and volume of hazardous goods they are transporting through respective communities. Unfortunately, the information is to be provided in only yearly aggregate form for the previous year, presented by quarter. Such yearly aggregate information, one year old, is not particularly helpful to first responders who require “real-time” information in order to instantly know what dangerous goods are being transported through their communities in the event of a derailment or other accident.
Rail companies have threatened municipalities saying they will cease providing the hazardous goods lists if municipalities share this information with anyone else, including the media. This begs the question, “Why are rail companies so secretive about letting the public know what is moving through our communities?”
CN spokesman, Jim Feeny said the hazardous goods information can’t be shared with the public “due to security concerns”. On the other hand, the Chair of the FCM’s railway safety working group, Doug Reycraft, said, “Whenever there’s any discussion with [railways] about sharing information, they seemed concerned about it getting into the hands of their competitors and undermining their position.” As Yahoo News wrote, ‘That’s not the same thing as playing the terrorism card, which CN’s Feeny implicitly did.”
The St. Albert Gazette contacted multiple sources in January in an attempt to find out what dangerous goods are passing through St. Albert, Alberta. CN declined to answer. CN Rail’s Warren Chandler told the Gazette dangerous goods information for St. Albert trains was not available. He said, “I do not have that information readily available…CN can move any commodity at anytime on our network in response to customer demand.” When Transport Canada was contacted by the Gazette, Brian Williams said anyone wanting to know the exact number of trains, and what’s on them, will have to get that information from CN Rail.
Is it any wonder Canadians are concerned about rail safety and what’s being transported through our communities and along our rivers and lakes? Transport Canada says rail companies have that information, yet only requires the companies to provide municipalities with the aggregate information that is one year old – which is really not very helpful. Rail companies like CN say they can haul whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. As Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow was recently quoted saying, “I think the public has a right to make informed decisions about their own safety, and about the neighbourhoods in which they live.” Ajax, Ontario Mayor Steve Parish recently said, “I would hope that CN would see that obligation as well. Certainly, the public has a right to that information, and they have a right to know that their public officials are making plans for emergency preparedness on the basis of good data and knowledge.”
The strict confidentiality of hazardous material lists leaves municipalities and the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who live and work next to railroad tracks wondering about their safety. It’s about time the federal government – specifically Transport Canada – exercises its legislative responsibilities for the rail industry, including rail safety. Much of the railway legislation and regulations in Canada have not changed significantly since they were first drafted and passed in the 1800s, and they are long overdue to be updated in order to protect the public and the environment, particularly considering the devastating impacts of derailments and associated spills, explosions and fires. These changes should include forcing rail companies to share real-time information on what hazardous goods they are transporting through our towns and cities. (About the only dangerous goods information that is public is that at least 12% of all rail cargo hauled in Canada is hazardous, according to the Railway Association of Canada – CN’s Feeny says only 10%.)