Oil shipments by rail up dramatically

The Canadian Press, Hamilton Spectator (First) A6; Prince George Citizen (Final) News, Page 5.

A whopping 28,000 per cent increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail over the past five years is coming under the microscope following the deadly rail blast in Quebec (see story, page 8).

Canada's railways have made a determined push to cash in on the country's crude-oil bonanza, painting themselves as a cost-effective alternative to politically unpopular pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL.

The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to rattle over the nation's tracks this year, up from only 500 carloads in 2009.

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

Driven by the development of unconventional energy sources, the railway group expects a similar increase in traffic in the coming years, noting that as many as 600 barrels can be moved per carload.

"Railways have become a complementary option for moving crude to refineries located near tide water for access by ocean tankers [that] are not currently served by pipeline," the railway association's president, Michael Bourque, wrote in as recent online message, posted prior to the weekend

tragedy. He singled out the Irving refinery in New Brunswick as one example.

Now Irving Oil has confirmed in a statement that the fateful shipment of crude, which exploded Saturday, was bound for its New Brunswick refinery.

A rash of accidents and spills over the last year, in both Canada and the U.S., prompted Bourque to take aim critics, who questioned safety, saying their remarks "are simply not true" and that railways deliver dangerous goods "99.9977 per cent" of the time without incident.

The Quebec disaster is the fourth freighttrain accident under investigation involving crude-oil shipments since the beginning of the year, according to the federal Transportation Safety Board.

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 dangerous-goods specialist teams to Quebec over the weekend, has aggressively touted the benefits of railways over pipelines.

It has reminded the business community and oil sector that, unlike pipelines, railways don't come with burdensome long-term contracts, and noted that heavy crude also needs to be diluted when pushed through a pipeline.