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Emo train derailment cited in speed reduction study

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The Emo and Barwick derailments have been cited in a recommendation to the Department of Transport, to investigate whether key train speeds and regulations are in need of an overhaul.

The Transportation Safety Board - the federal body charged with the task of investigating transportation accidents - has recommended that “The Department of Transport conduct a study on the factors that increase the severity of the outcomes for derailments involving dangerous goods, identify appropriate mitigating strategies including train speeds for various train risk profiles and amend the Rules Respecting Key Trains and Key Routes accordingly.”

In response to the recommendation, Transport Canada has committed to “a literature review of existing studies on the factors affecting the severity of derailments involving Dangerous Goods. Transport Canada will then assess the results of the literature review to determine if additional scientific and engineering analysis would be meaningful to further understand derailment severity factors,” according to a report on the Transportation Safety Board website.

Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski has been following the Emo derailment, and feels the speeds around the Township of Emo should be investigated. He's heard from residents and town officials, who feel that the landscape of turns leading into the town warrant a closer look.

The speed limit at the time of the incident was 45 mph, with the train travelling at 44 mph.

Powlowski has been in contact with Transportation Minister Marc Garneau since the crash and has confidence in his colleague's ability to address the issue.

Speed is just one factor which contributes to derailments, but is considered a leading factor in the severity of a derailment's outcome, noted the report, which compares seven derailments since 2015, all involving crude oil. All were functioning within Transport Canada speed restrictions and load requirements current to their time. Yet, all still derailed, spilling a cumulative total of 8.43 million litres of petroleum crude.

The most recent incident listed in the report was the Emo derailment of February 18. In that incident, 33 cars derailed, with five leaking out 210,000 litres of petroleum crude. Although a final report is pending investigation, the cause has been listed as track infrastructure. According to TSB media relations officer Kris Krepski, that's a blanket term for all track conditions, including rail, ties, plates, ballast and crossings; the specific cause is still unknown.

The May 4 2019 derailment in Barwick, just seven miles from the Emo site, has also been included in the report. Although no crude was spilled, eight cars derailed, six of which were carrying dangerous goods, while travelling at a speed of 25 mph. A wide track gauge was blamed for that incident.

The Emo derailment occurred after the implementation of MO-03, which is a series of speed restrictions put into place following the derailment in Guernsey Sask., in February, 2020. It had been built upon regulations put in place in 2016, in reaction to the Lac Megantic crash in Quebec. Under these federal guidelines, the Emo train had a maximum speed of 50 mph. However, that stretch of track had a permanent slow order, lowing the speed of all trains to 45 mph.

Although both of the local trains were within speed regulations, “there is a clear relationship between train speed and adverse outcome when large quantities of Dangerous Goods are involved. While MO-03 was a reasonable initial attempt to mitigate risk by managing train speed in consideration of a train's risk profile, this may not be sufficient in all cases.”

Train speed has long been used by the rail industry to manage the risk of derailment, according to the report. Historically, train speeds have been largely based on the class and condition of the track. Rail companies use temporary and permanent slow orders to reduce speeds, where required for operational or maintenance purposes.

The report noted that tailoring speed to track conditions can help minimize the severity of a derailment, but speed is only one factor. Train-specific factors also come into play, such as the weight and distribution of cars, and the mix of dangerous and non dangerous goods.

Over the past 10 years, evolving train technology has allowed for trains to use Distributed Power - placing locomotives in the middle of a train - which allows a train to be heavier and longer than historically possible, with more Dangerous Goods being transported as large blocks of cars, or as unit trains, which transport a single Dangerous Good, such as petroleum crude.

“Train speed is one of the primary factors that contributes to the severity of a derailment. However, other factors such as train length, train weight, the position of the first car(s) derailed, the position of the cars in the train and tank car design also play a role. In order to reduce the frequency of these accidents and the commensurate risk to the public, property and the environment, Transport Canada should further review and modify key train speeds, as appropriate, based on various train risk profiles while also considering other factors that influence the severity of a derailment,” said the TSB report.

“The TSB would appreciate being advised of TC's position on this issue, and what action, if any, will be taken in this regard.”

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