The federal government has taken strong steps to improve rail safety in response to the deadly accident in Lac-Mégantic, Que., but it should do more to improve the design of the tank cars used to haul crude oil, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada says.
The board made the comments on Wednesday in a largely positive assessment of changes to federal rail safety rules that were brought in after a train carrying volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people.
TSB chair Wendy Tadros said the agency is pleased with the strong first steps Transport Canada has taken to address the risks of carrying more oil by rail, including a new requirement for emergency response plans for crude oil shipments and a decision to phase out aging tank cars.
"We're very impressed. We think their first steps, the immediate steps, are strong," Ms. Tadros said in an interview. "In the longer term, we'll be watching very carefully for crucial follow-up action on the [DOT-111] tank cars and on route planning and analysis."
Earlier this year, the arm's-length agency issued a series of recommendations calling for better tank cars, new emergency response assistance plans for crude oil shipments and risk assessments for routes used to move dangerous goods. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced a series of new rules in April to address each of the board's recommendations.
Under the new rules, older-model DOT-111 tank cars must be phased out within three years, and about 5,000 of the least crash-resistant cars are now banned from transporting dangerous goods.
But the TSB said the government needs new standards for the cars, including a requirement for full head shields, stronger tank shells and thermal protection to help protect them in the event of an accident. The board noted in its assessment that it appears that both the Canadian and U.S. governments are discussing improvements to the current tank car standard.
"Our view is if you're going to open up the standard and have a look at it, you should look for the highest safety requirements possible," Ms. Tadros said.
The TSB assessment called new rules requiring emergency response assistance plans for crude oil "completely satisfactory," adding that the plans would help to ensure that the right resources are in place to deal with any future accidents. Before the accident in Lac-Mégantic, crude oil was not considered to be dangerous and emergency plans were not required.
Transport Canada also took strong steps in requiring railways to conduct risk analyses for dangerous-goods routes, the board said. However, it questioned the government's decision to limit the analyses to routes used for 10,000 or more car loads of dangerous goods.
"They have to look really carefully at the risks below that threshold," Ms. Tadros said. She noted that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the railway whose train crashed in Lac-Mégantic, transported 9,428 cars of petroleum in 2012 – suggesting that significant risks may exist, even on routes carrying a relatively low quantity of dangerous goods.