When money doesn’t matter, rules do

Andru McCracken headshot
Andru McCracken, Editor

By Andru McCracken

CN didn’t mean to crash a train at Moose Lake. It just happened. There were probably some mitigating factors that made operating a 26,000 tonne train through a mountain pass even more difficult than usual. Temperature fluctuations. A defective rail. A long list of things could have contributed, but whatever the precise cause, it’s clear the inherent financial disincentive that comes when you crash millions of dollars of cargo and equipment in the middle of a provincial park aren’t enough to cause CN to operate better.

The fault doesn’t lie with local maintenance crews or operators: they do all that they can with what they are given. The fault lies with the company.

Derailments are just a cost of doing business and in CN’s annual report they show up as a line item like any other expense. Amid their highest-ever earnings, what’s a couple rail cars of potash in a lake?
The cost of clean up, the inconvenience of a derailment and a few lost hours of operation are easily dealt with. For CN this model works. For those of us living in the mountains, we can expect more derailments.

But the question is whether Canadians can afford to tolerate a railway operator with this record.
It is worth considering who is allowed to do the dangerous work of carrying goods through our mountains along the headwaters.

Anyone with opposable thumbs and a foot can operate a motor vehicle, but not everybody is allowed to. Perhaps CN isn’t the right fit for this job.

What would the Boxing Day derailment of Moose Lake have looked like if the cargo had been the same as the material that poisoned Wabamun Lake years ago? Or oil or bitumen? Or caustic soda, or chlorine gas?

I will say now what will be said when the inevitable catastrophic watershed-altering derailment finally does happen: in order to operate in the mountains, indeed anywhere, railway companies need to prove their competence before being allowed to operate. They need to prove to Canadians that they are committed to not derailing anything anywhere and spend a portion of the ever-increasing profit on preventing derailments, not just cleaning them up after they have happened.

Quite simply, the privilege of operating needs to be bound to performance. If CN hasn’t already struck out, they are pretty close.

CORRECTION: Jan 15, 2020 McCracken mentioned a 96,000 tonne train, this is more than 3 times the maximum allowable weight for a train. 26,000 tonnes is about the maximum.