WINNIPEG – Ottawa isn’t ready to provide details about what hazardous materials trains are carrying through Canadian communities, despite universal demands from provincial transport ministers and municipalities for greater transparency.
Ministers meeting in Winnipeg on Wednesday said they want the federal government to require rail companies to be more transparent about the goods they carry so local authorities know exactly what hazardous materials are being shipped.
Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she’s open to listening to the concerns of her provincial colleagues, but she would not make a commitment.
“I look forward to hearing everything,” she said as she hurried into the meeting. “I’m open to talking to everybody about what their concerns are and that’s what part of today is about.”
Provincial ministers said they are looking for more than a sympathetic ear.
Quebec Transportation Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said Ottawa must act quickly after the deadly derailment in Lac Megantic in his province. The July disaster devastated the town’s core and killed 47 people.
All provinces support tougher rail safety regulations and it’s up to the federal government now to respond immediately, Gaudreault said.
“The government of Canada should be inspired by what they’re doing in the United States,” he said.
“They are already taking steps to tighten up regulations. They accelerated the process after the tragedy in Lac Megantic. I hope the federal government will do the same thing.”
At a bare minimum, Gaudreault said Ottawa should divulge exactly what trains are carrying.
“It’s absolutely incredible that municipalities don’t know what is passing through their territory,” he said.
“Canadians are concerned because we have seen an increase in dangerous materials on railways for some years. It’s very important to address this problem.”
Rail safety was expected to dominate the agenda of the annual meeting, the ministers’ first since the tragedy in Lac Megantic.
The issue has been under constant scrutiny with two train derailments in Calgary over the summer, as well as a collision earlier this month between an Ottawa transit bus and a VIA passenger train which killed six people and left more than 30 injured.
As transport ministers gathered in Winnipeg, 17 Canadian National rail cars — some carrying flammable petroleum, ethanol and chemicals — came off the tracks near the village of Landis, west of Saskatoon.
Manitoba Transport Minister Steve Ashton said local authorities deserve to know precisely what cargo trains are carrying, since their citizens are the first to respond if disaster strikes.
“It’s very clear that we have to have better information about what hazardous materials are travelling where,” Ashton said. “We could do a heck of a lot better as Canadian in terms of rail safety and we can start with transparency.”
There were some tense moments in late June when a train carrying oil products teetered on a broken rail bridge, threatening to tumble into the flooded Bow River in Calgary. It was eventually removed without incident, but not before Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed frustration about his inability to find out exactly what was in the cars.
Alberta Transport Minister Ric McIver said the province wants basic disclosure for the safety of its citizens.
“We want our municipal partners — who in many cases are the first responders — to know what they’re responding to,” he said.
“We want them to have some background information about what the level of danger is so that they can keep the rest of our citizens safe and so they can get home themselves to their families.
“Our government believes very strongly that those things are not extras.”