Corp Comm Connects

Chance of rail disaster slim, but Georgina, CN prepared
May 27, 2015
By Heidi Riedner

A panel of emergency experts fielded questions, but it was two CN Rail representatives who were in the hot seat for most of a public meeting regarding rail safety in Pefferlaw Monday night.

But CN’s regional manager of public affairs, Pierre Bergeron, and dangerous goods officer, David Slauson, assured area residents that CN, in conjunction with local first responders, has established emergency protocols and access to significant resources to deal with a potential disaster on one of its main key lines that sees up to 18 trains a day travelling through Georgina.

A Canada-U.S. safety and emergency plan that covers the rail industry is augmented by plans from the federal to the local level.

That’s on top of extensive safety, maintenance and regulatory measures already in place under its own railway industry association and Transport Canada.

“I have been with CN for 17 years and I can assure you we take safety very seriously,” Bergeron told a crowd of about 70 people gathered at the Lions Community Hall, adding $336 million has been invested in Ontario, of a total $3.7 billion directed toward its tracks in North America, ensuring they are operating safely.

The main issue raised by most residents, however, was the perception they were being kept in the dark about what dangerous goods were travelling through their own backyards and what would happen in the event of a derailment that could potentially cut off escape and emergency routes, particularly in the Forestry Drive area.

Despite the inference by some that community safety was being compromised in the corporate interests focused on the bottom line of business, CN reps said it has the ability and appropriate infrastructure to move commodities at the appropriate speed and do it very safely - including the 10 per cent of product that is classified as dangerous or hazardous goods travelling at a mandated 50 mph through town.

“Everyone thinks CN Rail can do whatever it pleases, whenever, wherever. We cannot. We are federally regulated,” said Slauson, adding CN strives to go “several steps above” federal regulations.

In the event of a “system upset”, which includes a derailment, Slauson said CN’s railway response units work with fire, police and EMS units on the local level under the fire chief, who has jurisdiction.

“We want to work within that system. We don’t come into a city, we don’t take anything over, we work within the existing command structure,” he said, adding, however, that CN has access to significant resources, certified contractors and its own industrial firefighting unit that specializes in chemical fires to aid response teams.

“We have an actual emergency response plan. We do not shoot from the hip. It is a written document. It is a living document that gets updated every three years. It’s our accident, our incident and we’re here to help. We want to mitigate it just as fast as you.”

As for dangerous goods, fire chiefs are provided a list of all hazardous materials travelling through their respective jurisdictions under Transport Canada rules.

“We know what is travelling down that line and we use that to assist us in ensuring that we are prepared,” Georgina Fire Chief Steve Richardson said.

He also assured residents there are co-ordinated emergency plans and protocols in place, not only through CN, but also through mutual aid agreements, with local first response agencies at the regional level and access to resources at the provincial level, if necessary.

“Everybody’s going on the assumption that a train is derailing at the Pefferlaw crossing. I can’t prepare like that. I’ve got the whole town to protect, so I have to look at it right from Port Bolster right down to Ravenshoe Road.”

In response to fears that emergency response in Pefferlaw could be hampered by being effectively cut off with a train derailment right through the centre of town, Richardson said the response capability, capacity and access routes are there, not only through local support through Georgina’s three fire halls, but also through co-ordinated emergency plans to bring in the support needed depending on the situation.

“I can’t stand here and tell you every single possible scenario. The scenario is going to dictate at the time to emergency responders how we deal with it.”

He also added that residents are a big part of the overall picture by being prepared.

“That’s where you can assist emergency services right off the hop,” he said, adding residents may be told to stay in place or evacuate to a safe zone, which is also where having a 72-hour emergency kit comes into play.

Marie Lofranco, who lives at Hwy. 48 and Lakeride Road, agreed.

“I’m all about emergency preparedness,” she said, holding up her copy of York Region’s emergency preparedness guide.

“I don’t know anybody who has a 72-hour kit. People must think we’re out of our minds, but I’m ready. I just need to up my ante if a hazardous spill is involved,” she said, agreeing rail disasters are what are termed low-probability, high-risk events.

“Do I worry about it? Yes, no, maybe. It’s a crap shoot. The same thing could happen with any of the trucks travelling Hwy. 48. I just want to get the message that it’s happened and what I need to do.”

Robocalls would be the best method to get the message out and inform residents of a major emergency, in Lofranco’s opinion.

“A simple fact sheet of how we will be notified, numbers to contact and what to do in the event of an emergency should be made available and easy to find,” she said.

“You can’t control the rails, what’s going in and out and what they’re carrying, just like we can’t control the highways, but what we can control is how prepared we, as residents, are.”

Despite strict safety measures, regulation and enforcement, the concept of zero risk doesn’t exist, Bergeron said.

“We don’t pretend that we can have zero risk. We are very low risk, but if something happens, it can be very very big. What we want to do is always strive to be better. We are getting at it, we’re more and more involved in communities and, if something happens, we will be here and we will be present.”

Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk said while not everyone may be happy about the number of rail cars passing through town, the bigger question is what is going to happen if something does happen.

“That’s what we need to look at and I think the answer we’ve heard here tonight is that there are plans in place.”

Residents were encouraged to contact CN at 1-800-465-9239 with any questions or concerns.