The train pulling 73 cars of crude oil that derailed and exploded Saturday vaporizing the downtown core of Lac-Megantic, Que., and killing a-yet-to-be-determined number of residents probably went through Windsor on its way from North Dakota.
I believe it did, yes, Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Chicago-based Rail World Inc, the owner of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, told The Star Monday when asked if his companys train, bound for New Brunswick, went through Windsor via the Detroit River rail tunnel.
Thats the normal way, he said. Sometimes it goes north of the (Great) Lakes, sometimes it goes south of the Lakes. Most of the times it goes south of the Lakes and thats the route youre describing.
Anywhere a freight train travels theres always the risk of a disaster like Lac-Megantic, says Windsor fire department Chief Bruce Montone. And Windsor has a lot of freight trains travelling through.
We are a major gateway for all kinds of commodities, whether they are on railways or highways, so a large amount of dangerous goods are transported through our city on a regular basis.
Which is why its important for local fire departments and other emergency personnel to have emergency plans in place, to continually review those plans, to exercise them and practise them, the chief said, so when something does happen, they're ready to respond.
Because heres the problem: You don't know when, you don't know where, and you don't know what.
Attempts to find out from Canadas two major railways CP and CN the volumes and nature of hazardous goods travelling through Windsor weren't successful Monday. A CN spokesman didn't respond to a phone message and a CP spokesman said that out of respect to the residents of Lac-Megantic, CP will not provide direct comment at this time.
He directed The Star to a statement from the Railway Association of Canada, which explains the safety standards railway companies follow as required by federal law.
This law is strictly applied throughout the rail sector with the result that millions of cars with products that are essential to our quality of life from purifying water we drink to fuel used to heat our homes and power our vehicles are transported by rail each year with more than 99.9977 per cent of these cars (arriving) at their destination safely, the association says.
Terry Berthiaume, president of Essex Terminal Railway, said I have a very strong comfort level when it comes to the possibility of a hazardous goods disaster. He said his Windsor-based firm has a stellar track record, largely due to how it does business. We don't travel at fast speeds, we don't handle crude oil and we have a very, very heavy emphasis on health and safety here, he said.
The ETR is a switching railway that takes cars between local firms and the major railways CP, CN, and U.S.-based CSX. Most of what it handles is agricultural goods, steel and auto parts. The small percentage of dangerous goods it handles include liquid propane from West Windsor and about one-and-a-half cars daily of hydrofluoric acid and sulphuric acid from Amherstburg, Berthiaume said.
He said another reason his company has a good safety record is this areas topography. The Lac-Megantic derailment happened when the unmanned train careened down a steep grade into the town.
We don't have that situation here; we have pretty flat land, he said.
But Phil Berthiaume, Essex County's emergency management co-ordinator, said this area has to be prepared for the possibility. Railway downsizing and consolidation have led to railways abandoning many local lines, but that has meant the remaining major lines are carrying more materials, he said, and those lines go through some residential areas.
Theres almost a monthly incident where a train and a car meet at a level crossing, he said. Such a crash could lead to a derailment, he said. It doesn't take much.
Montone said whether by rail, truck or plane, carriers are required to carry manifests on board that spell out what hazardous materials they have. On railways, placards with identifying numbers have to be attached to four sides of a car, clearly visible from a safe distance. Theres a national 24-hour line service emergency crews can contact to find out the identity of the hazardous material, its dangers and how to deal with it, and whether residents within a certain radius should be evacuated. It can also advise firefighters what to do when one hazardous chemical mixes with another.
Partly because so much freight goes through this area, Windsor is one of three cities with special hazardous material teams funded by the province. (The others are Toronto and Ottawa.)
The fire chief added that while the Lac-Megantic catastrophe has everyone focused on railways, Windsor cant forget about trucks hauling hazardous goods. Think about how many transports are involved in accidents on the 401 or along (E.C.) Row, or even on our county roads, he said. These trucks can be hauling explosive materials and reactive chemicals.
Smaller amounts, yes, but just as much of a hazard.