Rail must be made safer for communities

Among the defining issues of the Conservative’s time in government is the constant march toward self-regulation for industry.  In the past Canada relied on strong public regulation and oversight to ensure risks are managed to protect the public.  The move away from that time-tested method has been incremental and deliberate.  We have seen it with food inspection, environment monitoring and safeguards, and have been reminded again that this is how our railways operate.

The recent derailment and tanker fire in Plaster rock, New Brunswick that evacuated homes in that tiny community is the second event involving crude oil in Canada over the last six months.  Most will recall the horrific Lac Megantic derailment that decimated the tiny Quebec town this summer is the other. In addition to these, an explosive derailment happened near Gainford, Alberta in October forcing nearly 100 people to leave their homes.  Closer to home, people in White River won’t forget the derailment and spill of crude oil in early April.

Clearly something isn’t working with self-regulated railways but the government is refusing to acknowledge this.  When New Democrats suggested that the House of Commons transport Committee should hold emergency meetings last summer to look into the tragedy in Lac Megantic, we were told it was too soon.  Six months later with tankers still burning in New Brunswick it seems that delay comes with a price.

As Tom Mulcair said, it is only by the grace of God that nobody was injured in Plaster Rock and we cannot continue hoping to be lucky.  Surely the time has come for us to move the odds a little toward the public good and away from the method that isn’t working as well as it should.

In addition to that, it is time to move to a system that informs communities when dangerous goods are being transported through their town.  We know that transportation of crude oil by rail and pipeline can be done safely but it needs to be done right.  Canada is also falling behind on tanker car technology and the new generation being used in the United States would help mitigate the effects of derailments, just like upgraded braking systems would help limit these occurrences.

These are things to keep in mind as the discussion to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline heats up this winter.  There have already been warnings from the government that failing to build a pipeline will only increase the use of rail to move crude oil.  What they are missing is the opportunity to tell Canadians that tougher safety measures and public oversight could increase the safety of that significantly.  This is what the government should be doing, but are so ideologically opposed to because of their belief that public safety amounts some kind of big brother-type frustration for business.

Let’s not take this as an opportunity to demonize rail.  It is an inexpensive, environmentally positive, and safe way to move freight and people.  We do need to assert our right to oversee safety and give regulators enough teeth to ensure that rail companies will listen and comply.    It will cost rail companies a bit, but when the CEO of CP can haul in almost $50 million in salary and bonuses it is an indication that that there is enough money to ensure that things are done more safely for the country and the communities that they operate in.