OTTAWA - Transport Canada quietly approved new safety rules drafted by the railway industry on Boxing Day just as an emergency directive issued in the wake of last summer's Lac-Megantic disaster was set to expire.
The federal department also reissued a new emergency directive on Jan. 1, again without public notification, covering those rail companies that are not part of the Railway Association of Canada.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt issued the emergency directive last July to address some of the most glaring safety deficiencies exposed by the derailment and explosion of an oil-laden train that claimed 47 lives in Lac-Megantic, Que.
Since then, there have been at least five significant railway accidents in North America involving the spill or combustion of oil, including the derailment this week of a CN train in northwestern New Brunswick.
The emergency measures put in place last summer dictated that at least two crew members must work trains that carry dangerous goods.
In addition, the federal directive said no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous materials could be left unattended on a main track.
Transport Canada declined to comment Thursday on the newly approved rules, endorsed Dec. 26 by Gerard McDonald, the department's assistant deputy minister for safety and security.
However, the Railway Association provided a copy to The Canadian Press.
Like the emergency directive, the new rules continue to require that at least two crew work a train transporting dangerous material such as crude oil.
The rules drop the requirement that a train with hazardous cargo be continuously attended, but insist if it is left unattended that new instructions be followed to safely apply brakes and secure the cab to prevent unauthorized entry.
Kevin McKinnon, director of regulatory affairs at the Railway Association, said the new rules will prevent freight trains from rolling away or being tampered with.
"The public should be very comfortable with what was put out by us," he said Thursday.
McKinnon, a qualified locomotive engineer, said it's not realistic to have a crew member watch a train loaded with dangerous goods round-the-clock.
"We ship dangerous commodities, yes we do. We ship them throughout the country, and there's times where they are not going to be attended," he said.
"But, I mean, do you not leave your car out in the parking lot? Or do you sleep beside it every night?"
The new rules stipulate that before leaving a train at any location, the employee doing so "must confirm with another employee the manner in which the equipment has been secured."
In a letter to the Railway Association, McDonald said member companies are required to file special instructions with the department governing the testing of hand brakes.
The New Brunswick accident has renewed concerns about the hazards of moving oil by rail.
At a news conference, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the "enormous" increase in rail transport of crude oil in recent years has not been matched by an increase in rail inspections and safety audits.
"There is such thing as safe transport of petroleum products by pipeline. There is such as safe transport by rail," Mulcair said.
"But you've got to put in the conditions, you've got to supervise on behalf of the public. That's what's missing in Canada now. We let the companies decide for themselves. We let them check themselves, regulate themselves and supervise themselves."
There have been repeated warnings that DOT-111 tank cars routinely used to ship oil can easily rupture in a derailment.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox met Thursday with a congressional delegation from North Dakota, who quoted the transport czar telling them that new regulations for oil transport — including tank car reforms — would be announced in "weeks, not months."
Mulcair warned Canada will have to be in lock step.
"We could wind up with the worst of all situations in Canada if we don't act on this," he said of the aging DOT-111 tank cars.
"If they're still approved up here and the Americans are replacing them, they're all going to buy them on the cheap and we'll have kilometres-long trains of this dangerous stuff moving in those old cars."
In fact, the integrated North American rail service means all shippers will be caught in the same supply-and-demand dilemma should new tank cars be required.
That's because it will be a tall order to build enough new, stronger tank cars, said Larry Beirlein, a Washington-based lawyer with the Association of Hazmat Shippers, which provides regulatory legal advice to industry on the full gamut of hazardous materials, from gas cylinders to refineries to nail polish.
"You not only have very few builders of these kinds of cars, there are even fewer installations that could modify them," he said in an interview.
"With thousands of cars across North America, I don't think anything significant could be done in less than 10 years because of the backlog."