CALGARY – Calgary’s mayor said Thursday he had a lot of serious questions for Canadian Pacific Railway as emergency crews attempted to secure tanker cars loaded with an oil product and teetering on a broken bridge above the swollen Bow River.
Naheed Nenshi said he had concerns about the timing of the bridge inspection in relation to the recent flood that swamped the city. He also wondered why railways are exempt from municipal regulations.
Railways are under federal jurisdiction and are responsible for their own inspections.
“How is it we don’t have regulatory authority over this, but it’s my guys down there risking their lives to fix it?” Nenshi asked Thursday.
“Certainly once this crisis is over, I’ll be looking for a lot of answers from a lot of people.
“When was that bridge inspected? Why was it not inspected after Saturday? Remember, on Saturday the Bow River was still running higher than anyone had ever seen in their lifetimes,” Nenshi said.
CP Rail (TSX:CP) issued a statement Thursday that said the bridge had been inspected on Saturday and the tracks on Monday.
The company said the cars were carrying a product used to dilute raw oilsands bitumen. The product is also used as a solvent used in metal polishes, paint thinner, oil-based stains and paint. Five of the cars were full and one empty.
“I’ll be very blunt. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this,” Nenshi said. “We’ve seen a lot of people lose their jobs at CP over the last year. How many bridge inspectors did they fire?”
CP spokesman Ed Greenberg would not comment on the mayor’s criticisms, but said the company has a solid rail safety and maintenance programs.
“CP has an extensive inspection and maintenance program for all of our bridges, structures and track infrastructure. That is a priority of this railway, a priority that will not change,” he said. “Our company will be conducting an investigation into what happened here and will also be co-operating with the Transportation Safety Board.”
As Nenshi spoke, emergency crews were undertaking a delicate operation to secure the derailed cars and empty them before they fell into the water.
The bridge gave way after most of the train had crossed. Cars that were still on the tracks were pulled away from either end.
Acting Calgary fire chief Ken Uzeloc said crews had strung a cable through the railcars and secured it to another train carrying rocks so that if the bridge gave way, the cars wouldn’t be carried down the river.
Crews hoped to pull another train along a parallel bridge so the cargo could be pumped off and the empty cars safely removed.
“The last thing we want is these cars floating down the river and causing problems downstream,” Uzeloc said.
Calgary Emergency management director Bruce Burrell said the cars were not leaking, but booms were being placed down river in case of any spills.
The primarily industrial area around the derailment was evacuated, including the city’s sewage treatment plant. Nenshi said staff had to leave because of the evacuation and there was no one left to treat the raw waste water now flowing through the plant. He said the city’s water supply was safe, though.
Both the Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary burst their banks when heavy rain pounded southern regions of Alberta last week. Authorities have not said if flooding was responsible for the structural failure.
Nenshi said railways are private companies, but unlike other private businesses, are exempt from municipal regulations. He said that’s been a point of contention for municipalities.
“I will tell you that this has been a constant frustration for every municipal politician in this country forever.”
Rail carriers aren’t even subject to city noise bylaws, he said.
“We have to have a serious conversation about this. This is a private business and other private businesses are subject to (municipal) regulation.”
The mayor said the bridge in question is old and was not built into the bedrock — “something I didn’t know until today” — whereas all the city’s bridges are. He said all the municipal bridges had been inspected three times since the flood and were solid.
The federal government says in Transport Canada safety rules updated last year that railway companies are responsible for inspecting railway bridges.
The rules state that the rail carriers are responsible for the condition of their bridges and must ensure that corrective action is taken if problems are found.
Railway companies are required to use a technically competent railway bridge engineer to conduct inspections. That person is supposed to have the authority to restrict traffic over a bridge if there are concerns about its condition.
The rules say each railway’s inspection program should include procedures to deal with any bridge “that might have been damaged by natural or accidental event, including but not limited to flood, fire, ice flows, debris flows.”
Railway companies are required to do their own safety audits and maintain their own safety records, which can be requested by Transport Canada.
Federal NDP transport critic Olivia Chow said the federal government has to stop allowing rail companies to conduct their own inspections.
“They can do their own inspections, but the federal government — or some level of government — need to inspect bridges,” she said.
“Mayor Nenshi is absolutely correct. He was being very polite, but it’s the municipal government’s personnel whose lives are on the line and yet they have absolutely no say whether these bridges are safe or not.”
In 2008, two separate advisory panels made 70 rail safety recommendations. A House of Commons standing committee expressed serious reservations about the so-called Safety Management System, under which much of the responsibility for safety was devolved to rail companies.
“While we strongly agree with the concept of the SMS, we would not recommend that it replace the current regulatory system,” said the standing committee report. “We have serious concerns regarding both the delays and the manner in which the SMS has been implemented by the railways and the government.”
The committee made several recommendations to modify the system and legislation was eventually passed.
But Chow said not enough has been done.
“There are fewer inspectors today than there were a few years ago.”
Chow said $3 million was cut from rail safety in the most recent budget, which followed a $500,000 cut the previous year.
In an emailed statement, Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the department is responding.
“The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is onsite to conduct a full investigation to determine the cause of the accident,” he said. “A Transport Canada ministerial observer will be present to report back on the investigation’s progress.
“Transport Canada is increasing oversight in southern Alberta as a prudent and precautionary measure.”
Transportation Safety Board investigator James Carmichael said CP will be asked about its protocol for inspecting lines after floods.
“All the bridges, track, railcars, locomotives — they all are required by Transport Canada to be inspected regularly and I don’t have all the time frames on all the stuff with me at the moment,” he said. “We are going to gather all the records from all the inspections that have recently taken place.
“We’re here to find out what happened and why and how to prevent it from happening again — or at least mitigating any circumstances where it could happen again.”
Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver said discussions around rail jurisdiction and CP inspections were for another day.
“I feel very confident that the infrastructure that we have in place is, generally speaking, in very good shape,” he said.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An early version referred to rail safety legislation dying on the order paper.