Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Crude Oil - ‘A Danger on Rails’

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. They 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 US. 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 criticise 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.

>>>‘A Danger on Rails’ -<<<

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New board, but same message

I think the headline says it all. New board, no new announcements. Time to wait (again).

>>>New board, but same message | North Bay Nugget<<<

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Canadian Rail Photo Spots Fully Updated!

My guide to good photo spots for railway photography in Canada has been fully revised and updated with new locations! Have a look here:

New Ontario Northland board meets Monday

Ontario Northland's new board meets next week. It is expected that the focus will be the North Bay-based refurbishment division, which has great potential for growth.

>>>New Ontario Northland board meets Monday<<<

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Metrolinx awards depot PPP contract

It might still look like a big hole in the ground, but work on the new GO maintenance facility in Whitby continues apace.

>>>Metrolinx awards depot PPP contract - Railway Gazette<<<

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Metrolinx return fares for late GO trains in record numbers

Train 15 minutes late? No worries, the Ontario taxpayer will foot the bill. But, if you live in the north of the province, your one train per day was just too darn expensive and has been axed altogether.

I have long thought that the GO service guarantee was an unfair perk for residents of the Toronto area, especially when you consider the cutbacks to transportation in northeastern Ontario, where even a late-running passenger train would be an improvement. Geography aside, doesn't a fare refund take money out of much-needed infrastructure improvements?

Metrolinx return fares for late GO trains in record numbers - CBC News

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three years on, the ONTC isn’t safe yet


Three years on, the ONTC isn’t safe yet

March 22, 2015

Three years ago this week, the Ontario government announced its plan to begin the divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. Although the government had since changed its mind and has pledged its support for the publicly owned crown agency, the future of the Commission its employees is far from secure.

Thomas Blampied, author of Call of the Northland, a book about the failed divestment plan, remains concerned about the future of northern Ontario’s transportation system.

“I am heartened that the government backed down from the divestment of the ONTC, but I am increasingly worried about the shape that the ‘transformation’ process is taking,” the author, who continues to follow the ONTC issue, explained.

Citing the recent announcement that the Matheson and Englehart bus stations will close in May, Blampied worries that transportation links in the north are far from secure.

“It’s one thing to cancel the Northlander and leave a bus service to pick up the slack. But it’s a totally different story to begin shutting down bus stations along that route. What’s next?”

Although Premier Kathleen Wynne has been more supportive of the ONTC, the government remains slow to provide real support for the North Bay-based crown agency.

“The government says it is committed to a publicly owned ONTC, but the Commission is shedding jobs in the refurbishment division due to the lack of work – work that the provincial government could be providing.”

Commenting on the announcement of a new board at the ONTC, which is to be chaired by former Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren, the author was cautiously optimistic.

“I’m glad that a new board will be in place at the ONTC soon and, while I know that ‘transformation’ means job losses and restructuring, it’s important that the ONTC isn’t cut back to the point that it can’t deliver the services people in the north rely on.”


Saturday, March 21, 2015

All Roads Lead North, Really?

A few weeks ago, there was a large mining convention in downtown Toronto, complete with lots of execs who looked like they had never been anywhere near a mine. As part of the publicity, Ontario Tourism put these labels on the floor of the Great Hall in Union Station and I simply had to photograph them. The message is priceless: all roads lead north, because there sure as hell isn't a train to take you there!