Minister revises order on rail speed limits in cold weather

Higher-risk trains can back up other rail traffic; revised order eases some restrictions

The federal transport minister has revised an order that railways feared would unnecessarily slow down freight traffic on frigid winter days.

The new rule dials back one issued last spring after the fiery derailment of a CP Rail train carrying crude oil near Guernsey, Sask. in February.

Although the order by the federal transport minister was aimed at trains carrying toxic or dangerous goods (specifically crude oil and liquid petroleum gas), it would have “unintended consequences” on all rail traffic this winter, CN Rail said in its 2020-21 winter plan.

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“Just as cars stuck behind a snowplow on the highway are forced to slow down to the speed of the snowplow, so too will trains stuck behind the crude oil and LPG traffic,” CN’s winter plan said. “The restrictions represent a speed reduction of up to 40 per cent in key corridors for trains subject to the order.”

Under the earlier ministerial order, “higher-risk key trains” had to slow to 40 m.p.h. (versus the normal 50 m.p.h.) in non-urban areas with track signals from Nov. 15 to March 15. And once the thermometer hit -25 C or colder, they had to slow to 30 m.p.h. — the 40 per cent speed reduction cited by CN.

In areas with no track signals, the speed limit was 25 m.p.h. from Nov. 15 to March 15.

Higher-risk key trains are defined as those that “carry crude oil or liquefied petroleum gases in a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars, or 35 or more tank cars dispersed through the train.”

That order was issued by federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau following February derailment of oil cars — the second derailment in less than two months near the small community an hour’s drive east of Saskatoon. In both cases, the trains jumped the tracks, leaked more than one million litres of crude oil, sent smoke billowing for miles, and shut down the Yellowhead. And in both cases, a broken rail was the suspected cause.

In the wake of the second derailment, Garneau imposed a 25 m.p.h. limit on trains carrying dangerous goods followed by a more detailed ministerial order in April.

But the new revised ministerial order allows these trains to keep rolling at 50 m.p.h. in signalled areas, even when it’s colder than -25 C. In non-signalled areas, the speed reductions now start when the temperature falls below -15 C. The speed limit in these areas is 40 m.p.h. where there is “broken rail detection technology” and 30 m.p.h. if there’s no such technology. (CP Rail said this fall that it is deploying this technology on its North Line, which runs from Winnipeg to Edmonton.)

However, to take advantage of the new rule, railways must have a winter operation plan “specific to each subdivision where higher-risk key trains operate.” If not, they will have to follow the Nov. 15 to March 15 rules.

Garneau’s new order also lays out “additional key elements” in winter operations plans that “must be satisfied in order to achieve a greater standard of safety during cold weather conditions,” including:

  •  Improved track inspection and track maintenance;
  •  Further speed restrictions if warranted due to inspection results;
  •  Measures to reduce risk in cases of “rapid temperature fluctuation”;
  •  The use of new technology to detect a rail break; and
  •  Approval of the plan by a professional engineer.

In urban areas, higher-risk key trains will have to slow to either 30 m.p.h. or 25 m.p.h. depending on temperature and whether the area has signals or broken rail detection technology.

— With files from Glacier FarmMedia

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Glenn Cheater

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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