Impact of rail speed reduction still uncertain

Federal government slowed the speed limit on trains carrying dangerous goods last week following an oil train derailment

Canada’s decision to slow key trains carrying dangerous good will affect the movement of commodities, but how much remains unknown, say transportation experts.

Following the derailment of a Canadian Pacific Railway train last week carrying crude oil in Guernsey, Sask., the federal government ordered the slowdown of federally regulated trains, with 20 or more cars, that are carrying dangerous goods.

The government mandated the slowdown because of safety concerns, and will examine whether additional measures are required. The order is in effect until March 8, but could be extended.

There were no injuries to the crew in the Guernsey-area derailment, and CP has said it is working with local responders to help with the cleanup and assist people living in the community.

“I realize there will be an effect on the economy of the country … but it is very, very important that we do not sacrifice safety,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau, speaking with reporters last week.

The decision has prompted questions about whether the slowdown will affect the movement of other commodities, particularly grain.

Trains carrying dangerous goods will now move at 32 km-h in metropolitan areas and 40 km-h in rural areas.

Before the order, trains were limited to 64 km-h in metropolitan areas, and 80 km-h elsewhere.

Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., which oversees the federal grain monitoring program, said the slowdown will have some effect, but it is too soon to say how much.

“The rule of thumb is the train on any subdivision only moves as fast as the slowest train,” Hemmes said. “There is a concern, but I wouldn’t be setting off alarm bells. We need to wait to see how the railways will react.”

Barry Prentice, a professor who teaches supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, said he expects the impacts will be short-lived and won’t last long.

He explained that when trains go slower, they require more track capacity. However, he said because there is a slow period for grain movement, it’s unlikely many schedules will be affected.

The 30-day mandate is also short, he added, meaning the ramifications will likely only be a blip.

“In sum, everything is connected to everything, so we cannot say there is no impact, but I am sure that the grain industry will hardly notice it,” Prentice said.

Hemmes said the railway companies are going to adjust to make the network flow as smoothly as possible. He said there are a number of ways they can alter schedules.

“I’m sure they are examining every alternative to make it as efficient as possible, while remaining as safe as they can,” he said.

In a statement, CP said it supports the slowdown. The company had implemented its own slowing measures before the federal government mandated it.

“Until we better understand the facts relating to today’s incident, it is prudent to operate with an abundance of caution,” said Keith Creel, CP president and chief executive officer, in the statement on the day of the derailment.

In an email, a Canadian National Railway spokesperson indicated the slowdown order could be significant, but didn’t elaborate further when asked.

“We have received the order concerning key train speeds and we will comply while reviewing its significant impact on our operations,” the CN spokesperson said.

Hemmes said the main focus should be hoping the dismal weather on the west side of the Rocky Mountains subsides. It would allow CN and CP to get their lines back up to shape, he said.

He said the last thing railway operators want is a derailment.

“That’s just gut-wrenching for them. They are going to be working night and day to find a solution to all of this,” he said. “Safety is something they take seriously.”

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