IN THE NEWS ~ Disaster opens debate over railway regulations, amount of oil being shipped

Monique Muise, Murray Brewster And Benjamin Shingler, Postmedia News with files from the Canadian Press

The Leader Post (Regina) (Early) Page A5; The Star Phoenix (Sasktoon) (Early), A5; Edmonton Journal (Early), A1/Front; Ottawa Citizen (Early) News, Page A1, Front.

How could this happen? It's a question being asked by many in the wake of this weekend's catastrophic train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Que., and even as the ruins continue to smoulder in the tiny town 216 kilometres east of Montreal, the search for the answer has begun.

Some clues will likely be found amid the blackened shell of Lac-Megantic's downtown core, but investigators will also need to examine the regulatory framework within which the company that owned the train was operating. In other words, did Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway respect the rules? And were the right rules even in place? Also coming under the microscope in the wake of the deadly crash is the increase in the amount of oil being shipped by rail. In the past five years, the volume of crude chugging along Canadian tracks has reportedly increased a whopping 28,000 per cent.

The eye-popping increase has gone largely unnoticed because public attention has been focused on the pipeline debates, said NDP energy critic Peter Julian.

The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight-train accident under investigation involving crudeoil shipments since the beginning of the year, according to the federal Transportation Safety Board, including one late last month on a sagging bridge in flood-ravaged Calgary. The derailed cars were able to be removed without spilling their cargo.

A month earlier, 91,000 litres of oil spilled from a CP Rail car near Jansen, Sask.

The tragedy occurred barely weeks after Parliament unanimously approved amendments to the Canada Transportation Act, meant to improve rail safety and efficiency.

The railway association, which dispatched its own dangerousgoods specialist teams to Quebec over the weekend, has aggressively touted the benefits of railways over pipelines.

The savings with train transportation can run as high as 30 per cent, per shipment, the association claims.

"Every mode (of transportation) has its nightmare scenarios. This one is it for the railways," said rail-transport policy expert Avrom Shtern, who also serves as spokesman for the Montreal-based Green Coalition.

The federal regulations and standards governing rail operations in Canada are complex and numerous. When a company is transporting dangerous goods such as crude oil, the rules - at least on paper - get even stricter.

Transport Canada's oversight role requires it to monitor railway companies for compliance with these rules, in addition to conducting audits, inspections and investigations. If a company fails to comply or has an accident, the government is also responsible for imposing fines and other sanctions. That's where the problems begin, according to Shtern.

"I think the government, especially after austerity cuts, relies more and more on the industry to police itself. It's unacceptable. You can't just write rules and expect the (train companies) to police themselves." ILLUS: Ryan Remiorz, The Canadian Press / The downtown core lays in ruins as fire fighters continue to water smouldering rubble on Sunday in Lac Megantic, Quebec after a train derailed and ignited tanker cars carrying crude oil.;