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Column: Dodging a potentially serious situation

An opinion piece on recent train derailment by Macoun.
Rail cars have derailed and caught fire near Macoun.

People in southeast Saskatchewan have experienced train derailments in the past.

I wouldn’t say they’re common. But in the 22 years I’ve been here, I would say we’ve had about half a dozen such incidents in and around Estevan. There have been other accidents in rural areas.

Most of them would be classified as minor, but the first one that I can recall occurring here was not. That derailment occurred in August 2004 in central Estevan, and resulted in an anhydrous ammonia leak. People were forced to flee their homes and parts of downtown Estevan were evacuated.

People were pretty nervous after that train left the tracks.

The incidents that followed over the next 15-plus years weren’t as bad. Typically you didn’t need a state of emergency or an evacuation order. There was a loud noise that grabbed your attention, the incident created a bit of an inconvenience for local residents, and undoubtedly resulted in a lot of extra work for CP Rail employees.

The derailment that occurred near Macoun on Thursday morning was not minor. And you have to think a lot of people believe they dodged a bullet.

The incident occurred 2,200 metres northwest of the village. It resulted in a few residents being forced to flee from Macoun. Some people from the RM of Cymri had to evacuate, too. But had something like this occurred within the village, the damage might have been catastrophic, and we would have been talking about a lot more than a derailment, an explosion and the associated impacts.

We’re thankful that nobody was injured in the explosion.

The photos and videos captured by Amber Mantei and others shortly after the incident occurred – and before emergency crews reached the scene – gained a lot of attention, and for good reason. They captured the scope of the damage, and provided a look at the scene before Highway 39 was closed off to the public.

When you have rail cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas, and the train derails, there is the potential for a serious situation.

Living in southeast Saskatchewan, there was the inevitable discussion about transporting crude oil by rail as opposed to by pipelines, even though oil was not a factor this time. There’s definitely a time and place to debate the merits of pipelines, and I’m all for having pipelines built, but ultimately oil wasn’t a factor. But we’ve seen derailments involving oil tankers before.

We don’t know, yet, what caused the train to leave the tracks. You’re going to have speculation. People will say human error or track failure or something else. The Transportation Safety Board is tasked with looking at what happened, but these things do take time to resolve.  

When they do finish their investigation, CP will have to move on the recommendations.

Each time we have a situation like this, we think about how it could have been worse. If it happens outside of an urban area, we think how it could have been close to a residential area. If there are rail cars that don’t explode or leak, we think about what could have happened if they do.

We hope that anyone aboard the train, or anyone around the site at the time, will be all right.

You only need to look at what happened in Lac Mégantic, Que., back in 2013, to see what could happen in the worst-case scenario.

Fortunately, derailments are rare. That’s why they’re news when they do happen. An explosion like the one near Macoun last week is a big story. And incidents like the one in Quebec nearly a decade ago almost never happen.

CP Rail, CN Rail and other train companies have to follow a pretty strict safety standard. If they don’t, they won’t operate. They’ll get shut down. The tracks have to be maintained and the employees need to be properly trained so they know what to do in various situations, including a derailment.

The biggest beef that most of us have with CP Rail is the long delays caused by trains at crossings. (Whether it’s a coincidence or not, I had a nearly 30-minute wait for a train at the 13th Avenue crossing Thursday afternoon about six hours after the derailment). 

When a derailment does occur, we often take a step back, take a deep breath and consider ourselves fortunate that it wasn’t worse.

Hopefully, we never have to encounter the worst-case scenario.

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