The board of directors of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) asked some tough questions about rail safety to a representative of the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) last week.
Emile Scheffel, B.C. Regional Lead of Community Affairs for CN, made a presentation to the RDBN board on Aug. 18 and answered questions about rail safety.
Telkwa Mayor Darcy Repen criticized CN for relying too much on local responders in the event of a train derailment.
“What I would like to know is what specifically you have in our regional district to address emergencies and where that team is located,” asked Repen.
Scheffel answered by saying CN would never expect a local fire department to do anything beyond their mandate.
“We might ask them to keep people away within a safe distance because that’s part of their mandate, to keep people safe.”
In the event of a derailment, a local fire department would keep residents within a safe distance until a dangerous goods officer from CN arrives at the scene.
“Sometimes that can take longer than we like,” said Scheffel, adding that a response time could take up to six hours.
During the meeting, Scheffel said CN has one dangerous goods officer based in Surrey, and another based in Edmonton. In addition, a CN police officer is based in Prince George and another is based in Prince Rupert.
“In the event of an accident, they’d figure out if it is faster to fly or drive there; we get the closest resource that we have there as fast as possible.”
Repen said this response strategy isn’t enough for the region.
“You mentioned you have one officer in Surrey, one officer in Edmonton and then a couple of police officers for this entire region,” he said. “We appreciate everything that CN does for the region, but we feel that CN needs to step up and take a much stronger initiative here in the regional district to protect our resources.”
Smithers councillor Gladys Atrill said CN’s one-to-six-hours response time is concerning. When talking about an environmental response, she said, six hours is a long time.
“That didn’t provide much comfort at all; it’s actually quite frightening to think about the fact that there’s lots of stuff moving down the [Bulkley] river corridor,” said Atrill.
Bill Miller, RDBN chair, added that if a train derailment took place in downtown Surrey, there would be major losses in infrastructure, but if a train derailment took place next to a river in Northern B.C., this would have long-term effects in a number of communities.
“That’s an important message to carry out to CN officials,” said Miller. “We don’t have the population base, but we do have the resources.”
Scheffel responded by saying CN takes a “team approach.” In the event of a derailment, CN would work in conjunction with organizations such as Emergency Management B.C. and the Ministry of Environment.
“It’s a shared effort,” said Scheffel.
However, some directors were not convinced that this approach would be effective in the event of an emergency.
“I have a sense that we are all relying on a team approach, but I am not sure that we have all the pieces in that team,” said Atrill, adding that CN needs to make sure communities have adequate equipment and teams in place to deal with emergencies.
Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold suggested that CN could work in partnership with organizations that already have spill response equipment such as Cheslatta Carrier Nation.
Scheffel said he would be happy to connect CN’s dangerous goods officers with such organizations.
Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen urged Scheffel to share the regional district’s message with CN officials.
“Having one dangerous goods officer in Surrey or Edmonton just isn’t good enough for us,” said Thiessen. “Communication needs to be so much quicker with our communities so that there’s some confidence in our relationship with CN.”
Board of directors raise issue of delays on Via Rail passenger trains
During the board meeting of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, Mark Fisher, Director of Electoral Area A (Smithers Rural), raised the issue of delays on Via Rail passenger trains.
Via Rail trains along the Prince George to Prince Rupert corridor are commonly a few hours late. The reason is that they have to wait for CN freight trains due to limited tracks.
Emile Scheffel, B.C. Regional Lead of Community Affairs for the Canadian National Railway Company (CN), said this is a “tough issue to solve.”
“At the same time that we have people trying to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ on Via Rail, we also have [industrial] customers in Prince Rupert and elsewhere that expect on-time service for their product,” he explained.
Fisher said CN needs to recognize that Via Rail passengers are just as important as the goods that CN is transporting.
“It’s something that can be done,” said Fisher. “Recognizing that the people have the right to move.”
Smithers councillor Gladys Atrill said the constant delays of passenger trains are a “huge detriment” to the region.
“Sometimes just a little desire to assist the passenger movement would go a long way,” she said. “People sit [on the train] for a long time; a train that should take five or six hours, sometimes takes 10 or 12.”
According to Scheffel, CN won’t be addressing this issue any time soon.
“We are running on average a dozen to 15 trains a day, so it’s a challenging one,” he said. “So I can’t promise that anything is going to change in that respect any time soon.”