There are far more questions than answers about the horrific train derailment and subsequent explosions that destroyed part of the downtown of historic Lac Megantic, Quebec early Saturday morning.
It is quite likely that the death toll will be close to 50 people, as 13 are officially dead and close to 40 are missing. They had little chance, with a 72-car unmanned train of tankers filled with crude oil piling up and quickly turning into a fireball, just metres from where they worked or slept.
This tragedy is causing people all across Canada to think more closely about the trainloads of goods that pass by their homes and businesses every day. Here in Langley, there are two very busy rail lines. Both pass through heavily-populated areas, and transport a wide variety of goods, including hazardous chemicals, explosives, refined petroleum products, coal and yes, even crude oil.
One line, owned by Canadian Pacific, goes through the heart of Langley City. It is home to at least 20 trains a day, mostly coal and container trains. The container trains carry a wide variety of goods, including container tanks that are used for a variety of hazardous goods. One recent container train had a prominent sign on it, proclaiming that the box (container) was filled with fireworks.
The Canadian National main line, also featuring close to 20 daily trains, goes through the heart of Fort Langley, with the downtown on one side and the Bedford Landing development on the other. Crude oil is hauled through there, as are a huge variety of other hazardous goods — more than on the CP line.
CN trains also traverse the edge of Walnut Grove and go through an industrial area, which includes several businesses which daily receive and unload tank cars filled with a variety of oil and chemical products.
These products are an important part of our daily lives, and rail is generally a safe way to haul these goods. But the Lac Megantic tragedy reminds us to be fully aware of what surrounds us, to insist that rail companies follow good safety practices and to ensure that local governments, and particularly fire departments, are fully aware of the scale of a fire involving petroleum products and other hazardous goods — no matter how they are transported.