Experts weigh in on rail slowdown imposed following fiery crash in Sask.


Trains carrying hazardous goods across the country will be slowing down over the next 30 days, following the second fiery crash in a two-month span near Guernsey, Sask. 

While it’s a move toward safer rail transport, the decision to slow trains down will have impacts across the country, experts say.

Garland Chow, an associate professor emeritus at UBC Sauder School of Business, said there are a number of safety benefits for trains.

“When you’re going slower, you can stop faster. So if the problem is an obstruction on the tracks at a weird crossing or something like that, they can stop faster and minimize the impact, if not avoid it,” he said. 

“The second benefit of having slower speeds is that after a collision, the impact will be less. But perhaps the most important one is that … if there is a derailment at a slower speed, fewer cars may derail.”

However, he said slower trains do create potential for accidents, as faster trains need to slow down when they approach a slower moving train. 

Chow said there will have to be more diligence when it comes to trains passing each other in order to prevent accidents from happening.

Slowdown will have a ripple effect

Chow said the biggest impact on the economy will be on productivity. 

He said railroads operators seek to use as much of their equipment as they can in any given period of time for the longest distance.

WATCH |  Garneau is ordering slower speeds for trains carrying dangerous goods

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau is ordering slower speeds for trains carrying dangerous goods on federal lines in the wake of a derailment in Saskatchewan on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. 4:53

“The slower you go, the less capacity that you have and the less you’re utilizing a given locomotive and its cars,” he said.

He added that while the slowdown only affects trains carrying hazardous goods, it will essentially create a ripple effect that will be felt across the entire rail system. 

“The scheduling they optimized is now going to be impacted so that these very precise movements of the trains, which optimized utilization of the track, that original plan has now been messed up,” he said. 

Chow said crew scheduling is also likely going to be affected as trains will not be making it from point A to point B at the same times they used to, so crews will likely be rescheduled, added or train stops will have to be co-ordinated differently.

Half the speed, twice as long to reach market

With trains travelling slower, goods will take longer to reach market, according to Ian Naish, who owns a transportation safety consultation company and is the former director of rail and pipeline investigations at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. 

“It’s four times as safe, going at half the speed,” Naish said. “If you talk about the economics issues, the fact that it’s going half as fast means that you can’t get the product to market; it gets there twice as slowly.” 

Naish said the tanker cars can survive crashes at half the speed much better than they can when travelling at full speeds. 

He speculated that track conditions, the history of that stretch of tracks and the route’s traffic will be the subjects of a Transportation Safety Board investigation into the most recent derailment and subsequent fire. 

“There’s quite a large increase in fires and explosions in the last year over previous years,” Naish said. “I don’t know how they define those, but it’s one thing I look at.” 

Alternative options slim

Barry Prentice, professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, said there aren’t many options aside from moving hazardous goods by rail. 

“Imagine moving all these products by truck. There’d be a lot more risk in doing that,” he said. 

“The alternative would be pipelines and they are safer, but there’s a lot of resistance to building pipelines. We don’t have many choices except rail.” 

Prentice said the full impact will depend on how long the slowdown order lasts. 

Because this is just a limited time slowdown, once the cold period is over he expects to see things return back to normal sooner rather than later, he said. 

Impact on oil, gas shipments unclear

John Zahary, CEO of Altex Energy, said his company oversees the loading and unloading of products off of trains. 

He said a bulk of the company’s work comes from crude oil shipments, and estimated that about a quarter of all the oil that gets loaded onto rail cars in Western Canada goes through Altex. 

Zahary said the slowdown was not unexpected, but he wasn’t sure as to what the effect of the order will be for his company quite yet. 

“We don’t know, and our customers — producers [and] refiners — don’t know either. We’re gonna have to see how this situation evolves,” Zahary said, adding there’s a heightened degree of anxiety in the industry. 

“It has been tough for most oil companies to be successful in Western Canada in the last number of years and you can only take so many body blows without succumbing to the impact of this stuff.”

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