Does the surge in transport of dangerous products by train in Ontario increase our risk of injury?
Rail transportation has increased considerably in Ontario over the past 10 years, particularly in the transport of freight such as crude oil. Until recently, many of us considered travel by rail to be one of the safest modes of transportation. Whether or not this was once true, a number of recent and devastating train accidents have heightened concerns over rail safety and increased our recognition of the potential for injury and death.
Every year, hundreds of train accidents, derailments and collisions occur in Canada. Train accidents sometimes involve violent crashes with cars at rail crossings or train derailments with devastating injury to rail passengers or to people residing in surrounding communities. Sometimes pedestrians are fatally injured by trains, as recently occurred in Kingston in June 2014, when a man was struck by a VIA Rail train.
In any circumstances where Canadians are injured or killed in a train accident due to negligence on the part of the railway, victims and their families are entitled to seek personal injury compensation from the rail company and their insurer. An ILO personal injury lawyer in your community can provide expert advice on how to proceed if you were a victim of a train accident.
Rail transportation in Canada – is it safe?
About 70 per cent of railway accidents involve freight trains. Passenger train accidents number only around 4 per cent of total train accidents. In 2012, there were 72 people seriously injured and 82 killed in train accidents in Canada. Many train collisions occur at rail crossings and road intersections and involve cars or pedestrians crossing into the path of a train. These types of train accidents sometimes occur when people are careless and underestimate the time it takes for a fast-moving train to reach them. However, rail operators and municipalities also have an obligation to keep people safe around rail crossings and stations, and a failure to do so sometimes results in injury to pedestrians and motorists.
The Railway Association of Canada reports that Canadian railways move half of Canada’s exports by volume and also, that Canadian railways handle the fourth largest volume of goods in the world. For several reasons, including energy conservation and alleviating highway traffic, the idea of transporting more freight and people by rail is excellent in theory. A key factor in the increase in volume is the 28,000 per cent increase in shipments of crude oil in the five years leading up to 2013, which occurred largely due to the negative publicity experienced by oil pipelines in the past few years. This increase represents a jump to 140,000 carloads of crude oil shipped, which is a dramatic change from the 500 carloads shipped in 2009.
In addition to an increase in the amount of cargo carried by rail, the increase in crude oil shipments in Ontario makes derailments potentially far more dangerous in terms of explosions, fire, and pollution. In response to an increase in CN accidents in recent years, a representative for CN rail employees criticized CN trains for being too long, driving too fast, with cars that are too heavy; all of which increases the risk of serious accidents.
Many people believe that safety standards in the rail industry have not kept up with growth. Greenpeace Canada expressed a concern that Federal regulations are behind, railway inspections are lacking, and there are many old tankers and trains on the rails that undermine the safety of the newer ones. In 2014, the Financial Post reported that CN Rail’s safety record had dropped significantly and the blame was put on poor track conditions. Derailments were up about 57 per cent from the previous year and significantly higher than the average for the previous five years. Fortunately, CP’s safety performance has been better; CP Rail carries almost as much crude oil as CN Rail.
Recent train accidents
In 2012, a VIA Rail train derailed in Burlington Ontario, resulting in the death of three passengers and 42 more injured. Some of the cars of the Toronto-bound train flipped on their sides, violently throwing passengers onto one another. The passengers later described the event as terrible and chaotic. A 60 year old man was in one of the cars that had flipped, which resulted in two broken ribs and a broken shoulder blade. Fractured and broken bones are the most common injuries suffered. Some passengers also experienced dislocated shoulders, back injuries and whiplash. One man suffered a heart attack as a result of the trauma. Even the passengers not severely injured in the event reported being extremely shaken up, many of whom were crying and in shock.
In September 2013, a Via Rail train collided with a bus at a train crossing in Ottawa. The terrible crash resulted in the death of five passengers and the bus driver, and caused severe injuries to other passengers. This devastating train-bus accident has resulted in a number of countersuits, as each side alleges the other to be at fault. The families of some of the victims have filed lawsuits against the City of Ottawa and also against the bus driver’s estate. To counter, the City of Ottawa and bus driver’s estate have blamed Via for the accident; the use of level crossings was cited as one of the causal factors for the train accident. The claims against Via allege multiple accusations of negligence by the rail operator, including that it was travelling too fast given railway crossing conditions and visibility, and that there was a failure to use warning lights, whistles and bells. However, others say that the red lights were flashing when the bus neared the crossing. Further, many Ottawa residents question why the bus driver did not stop at the crossing as is required of bus drivers in most Ontario communities. If the courts do not find Via negligent in this crash, then the City of Ottawa will likely be liable.
Of course, the most destructive crash in recent history occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, when an unattended freight train that was carrying crude oil began rolling down a steep grade and finally crashed into the unsuspecting town of Lac-Mégantic. The tremendous impact, explosions and fire destroyed the town and resulted in the death of 47 people. As well as the destruction of buildings and terrible loss of life, benzene and hydrocarbons polluted the land and water of the surrounding area. The railway line is owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) which was charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence for their fault in the accident. There are many criticisms of the rail company’s procedures leading up to the accident, including the fact that only seven brakes had been applied on the 79 railcars, whereas MMA’s own guidelines required a minimum of nine brakes. Experts later indicated that 15 brakes were actually needed given the slope that the train was parked on. The use of older model tank cars was also named as a contributing factor and fortunately, Ottawa is requiring rail companies to slowly replace these with better constructed models.
In Ontario, there were a number of recent main track derailments, in Newtonville (west of Port Hope), Nickel Lake, Wanup (south of Sudbury) and White River. In March 2015, another CN Rail train carrying crude oil, derailed in Gogama between Timmins and Sudbury. This was the second fiery CN derailment in a Northern Ontario community in less than a month. In the Gogama train accident, between 30 and 40 cars went off the track; they were newer model tank cars which nevertheless ruptured and caught fire in the derailment. Although no one was directly injured or killed, the raging fires and smoke polluted the air, and resulted in respiratory concerns for residents of Gogama. There were further concerns that oil which had spilled into the nearby river would contaminate drinking water, fish and wildlife in the area. CN was praised for reacting to, and cleanup up the disaster as soon as possible, but the Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report after this train accident commented that Ottawa’s standards for rail safety are still too low.
Reparation for victims of train accidents.
Motorists, pedestrians and cyclists should always proceed with caution around train crossings and should certainly not take a chance in advancing across when there is an oncoming train. The momentum of a train is extremely powerful and trains require a significant amount of track to stop, so the outcome is typically disastrous in a car-train or pedestrian-train collision.
If you or a loved one was injured in any type of train accident, consult with a personal injury lawyer to determine whether you have a case for compensation for damages for your injuries, or a case for a wrongful death claim. The accident lawyers at Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) specialize in negligence law and accident claims, and as such, are in the best position to judge the strength of your claim and to build a strong case if you decide to go ahead with your suit. There are a number of scenarios in which the rail company or municipality may be liable for your injuries. If you were a passenger injured in a train collision, you can sue the train company, not unlike if you are injured in a car accident. Also, if you were injured as a pedestrian or occupant of a car, depending on the circumstances of the accident and location, the train company may be liable for damages. Call an ILO attorney for a free consultation today.