As Transport Canada rolls out new rules designed to make rail transport safer, experts warn that weak data is leaving Canadian decision makers and the public without basic information on how safe railways are and what’s travelling along them, let alone what needs to change.
Jennifer Winter, a researcher at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, wrote in a paper earlier this year that even seemingly simple figures such as the number of annual train trips aren’t publicly reported. And statistics on safety, such as accident records, are “worryingly inaccessible, sometimes conflicting, and in certain cases not available at all.”
“Researchers always complain (the data is) never good enough for what we want, but I think in this case, my complaint is actually pretty legitimate,” said Winter, who began looking into Canada’s rail safety after the 2013 derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic.
She sought answers to presumably basic questions, such as how safe Canada’s railroads are, how risky it is to transport dangerous goods, and what kind of materials are transported through a given province or community.
“You just can’t find it,” said Winter. “Given increased public concern about the transportation of dangerous goods by rail … It’s not very reassuring that we are just unable to answer these very simple questions.”
Data on rail accidents and incidents is published by Statistics Canada, Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board. But its accessibility varies by agency, year and type of information. Some is only available upon request, while other data requires compiling months or years’ worth of reports to identify trends.
Winter also noted differences between statistics on “occurrences” released by Transport Canada and the safety board, as well as discrepancies between the total number of accidents reported by the two organizations in some years.
“(Transport Minister Lisa Raitt) and Transport Canada have committed to making Canadian rail transportation safer, but right now, it’s really difficult to evaluate whether or not transportation is safe,” said Winter, who recommended that consistent reporting standards for Statistics Canada, Transport Canada and the TSB be developed and information be released publicly through a transportation data portal.
“The biggest problem with lack of data is we can’t even create a baseline to measure ourselves against.”
Robert Wolfe, a professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, was at the chalet on Lac-Megantic where he’s gone every summer for 30 years on July 6 last year, when a runaway crude oil unit train thundered into town, skipped the tracks and blew up, killing 47 people.
In the weeks and months that followed, investigators learned that the oil, extracted from the Bakken region that stretches across North Dakota, south Saskatchewan and Montana, was more volatile than traditional crude. And the transport of it had risen drastically.
But, given how shipments are tracked, it’s likely no one noticed.
“All of a sudden, (the shipments) skyrocket,” said Wolfe. “And the nature of the statistical system is you might not necessarily have noticed the increase from the stats because of the way they’re collected.”
Statistics Canada reports monthly railway carloadings but does not separate out shipments of crude oil from “fuel oils and crude petroleum.” That didn’t matter when there wasn’t much crude oil being shipped by rail, said Wolfe. It matters now.
“Ideally, what would happen is StatsCan would simply break out crude shipments.”
Transport Canada, upon request, supplied data on the number of shipments by rail of crude oil over the past five years, showing such shipments rose from a paltry 144 carloads in 2009 to 127,925 carloads last year.
But the department can’t release any information on how much of that oil comes from the Bakken oilfields. The Canada Transportation Act forbids the disclosure of information that could be linked to an individual carrier, considering it “commercially sensitive.”
Regulators need to know, however, how much Bakken crude is being shipped and where it’s going, said Wolfe.
“What this revealed is that regulators don’t have the information,” said Wolfe. “And they should be able to see it in real time.”