Presentation to Crude by Rail Safety Initiative 2014

Wendy A. Tadros
Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada
Houston, Texas, 24 June 2014

Check against delivery.

Opening Remarks

Thank you for that introduction. And thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I’d like to begin with a quote by Oscar Wilde, who once said that “experience” is merely the name people give to their mistakes. That’s true, but I know a lot of organizations with plenty of “experience” who haven’t taken the next step: to learn from mistakes, and make better choices so something doesn’t go wrong the next time.

At the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, we’ve spent almost a quarter century doing just that. Whenever there is an accident—on our waterways, along our pipelines or railways, or in our skies—the dedicated men and women - our team of experts seek to answer three key questions: “What happened?” “Why did it happen?” And then, most importantly, “What needs to be done to ensure it won’t happen again?”

Here in Houston, you are probably more familiar with the NTSB, which has essentially the same goal, and works in much the same way we do. Speaking of which, I would like to thank the NTSB for being there to help us with our investigations when we needed it, particularly on the ground in Lac-Mégantic.

And now let’s talk about that accident, because not only is it on everyone’s mind, but it offers plenty of “experience” to learn from. In fact, in some ways, it’s the reason we’re all here today: Because the shipping of crude oil—whether by pipeline or by rail—is a topic that grows in importance every day. It is a topic that is on the minds of governments, and it’s in the media. It dominates radio call-in shows and newspaper editorial pages. And, as the number of barrels and carloads shipped continues to skyrocket, it is a growing concern for the people whose towns and cities and backyards lie along North America’s transportation routes.

Once in a generation, there is an accident that changes the face of safety … an accident that moves us—that forces us—to question our assumptions, to dig deep into the way things are done … and to really change a company, or an industry, or an entire culture, when the current one is found wanting.

I’m talking about fundamental change—a sea change, the kind of transformation that has the potential to make what emerges almost unrecognizable from what came before.

That accident, and the genesis for the change that is now sweeping the industry, happened on a warm summer night last July, and it began when a train carrying crude oil was parked unattended on a main track just a few miles above the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Everybody here knows at least some of what happened next: the runaway, the derailment, and the fiery devastation. It was destruction on a scale almost unimaginable. And we’ve all heard the numbers: about 6 million litres of Bakken oil spilled. 63 tank cars derailed, with breaches to 59 of those cars. And, most importantly, 47 lives lost.

And while this accident may have happened in a small Canadian town, the safety issues it raises are neither small nor confined to my nation. They are massive. And they apply to Canada and the United States.

In fact, given the numbers, and the rate at which they are increasing, a strong argument can be made that the United States has an even more compelling reason than Canada to move swiftly.

According to an article in the New York Times published earlier this year, not only is about two-thirds of the production in the Bakken field being shipped by rail, but trains are now carrying more than 10% of the total U.S. oil production. And some of it is going through high-population areas.

But back to Lac-Mégantic, because what we learned from this accident, what we gained in experience, has already proven a game-changer. To start with, there is the oil itself—which, we learned, is much more volatile than previously thought. Overnight, the old perception—of crude as just inert sludge—had been banished.

Then there were the things we communicated to regulators right away, in the initial weeks of the investigation.

I’m talking about the securement of unattended trains, particularly if they carry dangerous goods, as well as the testing—and accurate documentation of—petroleum crude oil properties.

Even bigger changes were soon to follow. In late January came an unprecedented move. Acting together, the TSB and the NTSB rolled out a series of parallel recommendations. We recognized that, since our railways (or railroads as you say) are interconnected, the solutions need to be coordinated. So we took a comprehensive approach to lowering the risk—focusing on how dangerous goods are moved at every step of the way, from origin to destination.

Our first recommendation targeted the tank cars, those now-“infamous” DOT 111’s. Tougher standards are needed, we said, and the sooner the better. That’s because, in Lac-Mégantic, the entire train was made up of older, unprotected tank cars, “legacy” cars that lacked enhancements such as a jacket, a full head shield, or thermal protection. Given the impact and fires at Lac-Mégantic, one thing was crystal clear: commodities posing significant risk must be shipped in containers that are safe.

I want to acknowledge here that it will take political courage to follow the science. Fortunately, the Canadian government has led the way, and we are encouraged by their initial response—prohibiting the use of the least-protected cars in the short term. And then, over the next three years, requiring retrofitting or phasing out of service all those “legacy” tank cars used to transport ethanol and crude oil.

That political courage, however, has to come on both sides of the border.

The United States is currently urging a voluntary phase-out. That’s not enough, not when the evidence is solid. And we know it’s solid because we analyzed every single one of those tank cars in Lac-Megantic.

And if we can take them out of service in 3 years in Canada, it can be done here, too.

After that, it will be up to both countries to step up again, with new North American tank car standards—standards that will raise the bar on safety and give railways, shippers, tank cars designers and manufacturers a level of certainty.

Our second recommendation dealt with the way railways plan their transportation—how they choose the routes on which oil and other dangerous goods are carried … and how they ensure safe train operations over those routes.

In some ways, this recommendation is a bit of a “sleeper,” and I think part of it has to do with the abstract nature of “plans.” Because, unlike say, tank cars, a plan isn’t a concrete, physical thing. It’s tougher to communicate, and its tougher to coalesce public opinion around the need for a “plan” to bring down another abstract: “risk.” But this recommendation has real potential to effect deep, systemic change in the rail industry. It has the potential—if I may mix my metaphors—to float everybody’s boat higher.

And here’s why. What we’re calling for involves a comprehensive, system-wide review of many variables. It’s about looking at what lies along each route, identifying alternative routes, and choosing the ones with the least risk. And while it’s always dangerous to speak in hypotheticals, I hope you’ll indulge me for just a moment.

Because, hypothetically, if a company is mindful about route-planning and analysis, here’s what can happen. To start, they ask themselves: How much product is being shipped? Are the track speeds appropriate? Can populated areas be avoided? And are there environmental sensitivities? And then they look at the measures they have in place, and they decide if those measures are sufficient.

Again, here are some examples: Is the track being maintained to the highest standard? Are wayside detection systems in all the right places? What are the rail crossings like? Are they active or passive? These are just a few of the questions, but they can have a profound effect on risk.

If done right, you’re not just lowering the risks of derailments involving dangerous goods … you are potentially lowering the risk that there will be an accident, period.

To be fair, some of this is already happening on some routes and for some products in the United States. But at the TSB, we called for route planning and analysis on routes carrying all dangerous goods. And then we want to see follow-up with risk assessments, so that railways don’t just look at what’s already there, but they ask themselves what they might be missing, what are the risks that maybe they haven’t yet thought of—risks that need to be assessed so measures can be put in place to keep our communities safe.

Again, there has been some progress. In Canada, new short-term requirements mean that railways carrying a “threshold” number of dangerous-goods cars—10 000 per year—must adopt operating practices including speed restrictions, expanded inspections, and risk-assessments on their routes.

That’s a starting point.

And while the intent is to develop a set of rules that are permanent, we will be watching carefully, to see whether those new rules will go far enough. For example, MMA—the railway involved in Lac-Mégantic—carried a little over 9400 carloads of crude in 2012. Just under the threshold. And that’s a red flag. Because it’s clear—there can be significant risks on lower-traffic lines, too.

Our final recommendation to emerge early from the Lac-Mégantic investigation is about making sure that when something does go wrong—even in the face of advance planning—the right resources are in place to reduce the severity and impact of a spill. And the best way to explain what I mean is to tell you about emergency responders at Lac-Mégantic, and the logistics they faced once they knew they were battling a blaze involving crude oil.

After assessing the situation, emergency responders quickly figured they needed over 30 000 litres of foam concentrate to fight the fire. There wasn’t that much available locally, but it was fortunate there was a nearby refinery. And it was fortunate the refinery had sufficient quantities, and could transport it immediately, so it arrived on scene within hours.

But what if the specialized resources needed to fight the fire were not so accessible? That simply cannot be left to chance. And that’s why we called for ERAPs—Emergency Response Assistance Plans—wherever large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons are being shipped.

Once again, the Canadian government “stepped up” and directed that there be an approved ERAP when higher risk hydrocarbons and ethanol are being moved.

All of that is good. And it’s also a lot of change in a relatively short time. Regulators clearly seem to appreciate the risks of carrying more and more oil by rail. They get what is at stake, and they get the need to address the risks flagged by independent accident investigation bodies.

But is it enough?

Because that’s the question I get asked all the time: “Would the measures we’ve called for have stopped this tragedy from taking place?”

And can we be confident that these measures will prevent something similar—an accident with slightly different circumstances, such as a different speed on a different track, or at a different location—from happening in the future?

I can’t tell you for sure, but I will come back to what I said at the beginning, about experience.

In this investigation, right out of the blocks we looked at so many risks: car securement rules, testing & classification of crude oil, tank car design. The manner in which railways plan their routes. Emergency response.

That’s a lot of opportunities for improvement, and to bring down risk. A lot of lessons to learn. And there’s more to come.

If we are successful, this accident, and the report that emerges from it, will have transformed the way in which we transport oil, and dangerous goods, in a once-in-a-generation way.

So can we? Will we?

Let me tell you about a poster. It hangs on a door at the TSB’s engineering lab, a door that leads to the office where the Lac-Mégantic investigation team does its work. And on that poster is a quote, just a single sentence—eight words that speak directly to why we do what we do, and why we cannot accept failure as an option.

“Their courage is the source of our motivation.”

Every member of that team sees those words when they go home each night. And they know that when our final report is released, we have to be able to answer not just what happened, not just why it happened, but have we done enough to help ensure it will never happen again?

Every member of that team knows that when we release our report, the people of Lac-Mégantic will be watching. And so will the people of Casselton, North Dakota. And Aliceville, Alabama. And Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. And Lynchburg, Virginia. Reporters will be watching. Politicians will be watching. Industry—and the entire world—will be watching.

So yes, I can promise that the lessons will be there. Our people are experts, and they are dedicated, and the report will be grounded in science. Thorough science. Our analysis will be exhaustive, our findings will be clear, and we will lay out a solid, rational, convincing case for change.

But the rest will be up to the change agents. Railways. Shippers. Refiners. Tank car manufacturers. Every stage of the crude-by-rail supply chain. In other words, the people in this room.

If regulators continue with their initial strong steps, then the prognosis is good. As I said, Canada has taken the lead here, and now U.S. regulators need to step up and take meaningful action. Especially when it comes to phasing out the older DOT 111 tank cars.

But you don’t have to wait for the regulators, not entirely. You can take action. Today. You can be leaders. You can learn the lessons of the accident at Lac-Mégantic, the lessons of Casselton and Plaster Rock. The lessons of Aliceville and Lynchburg. There’s no need to wait for more “experience.” There’s no need to keep repeating old mistakes. As I said before, we have before us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance safety.

Let’s not waste it.