Railway president confident Sydney-Truro line is safe

John Brannen, The News
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NEW GLASGOW – A few times a week, Gloria Young of New Glasgow heads down to the Coffee Bean to meet her sister for lunch.

While the deterioration on the outer edge of railway track that runs through downtown New Glasgow appears troubling, Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway president Mario Brault says the line is safe. As the dust settles on the fourth train derailment in six months in the county, the president of the railway believes the line is safe. JOHN BRANNEN – THE NEWS

She parks in the free parking lot, which necessitates a quick walk over the train tracks.

She was taken aback at the condition of the tracks one morning.

“I don’t normally look down at the tracks, but I couldn’t believe the condition they were in.” she said. “Rust, pieces missing and falling off the tracks.”

About two weeks later, three cars derailed on their way to Trenton causing a traffic delay on George Street in New Glasgow not even a kilometre from where she first noticed the railway track’s condition.

“I’ve lived in Pictou County all my life and I’ve never seen the railway replace the steel rails,” said Young. “Personally, I don’t think rail travel is safe.”

With the dust yet to settle on the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway’s latest derailment in Lansdowne involving six cars containing propane, the line’s track record of late is troublesome.

There have been four derailments on the Sydney to Truro CBNS in the last six months in Pictou County. While the trains were carrying steel, wood pulp, paper, petroleum products, chemicals, and agricultural products, none of the incidents have resulted in injuries or damages other than the railcars and track.

According to CBNS President Mario Brault, the 394 kilometres of track winds through an aggressive terrain.

“It crosses hills and valleys and passes through a few fair-size towns,” said Brault. “We just took over the line in 2012.”

He glanced at the photos taken by Young of the deteriorating track and noted that while it may look unsafe to an untrained eye, there is little need for concern.

“This will not cause a derailment because the railcar wheel doesn’t hit this.”

Often, a rail track like this would be slated for upgrades but because it is at a crossing, Brault noted that CBNS has to weigh the pros and cons of lifting the track for needless repairs. Something like this would close the crossing for days.

Originally, the rail line was built and owned by Canadian National Railways. After changing hands two times, the line was acquired by Genesee & Wyoming in 2012. Their Canadian headquarters is based in Montreal while CBNS has its head office in Stellarton.

After passing through several hands, Brault is hoping to bring some stability to the line and hopefully turn a profit.

“I’m hoping very strongly, that the container terminal in Melford will bring more business. The mainland section of this line is doing well but we need to have a lot of sales effort to make it more profitable.”

But beyond the economic sense for the rails, more pertinent questions remain about its safety. According to Brault, inspections are conducted a minimum of twice a week on the mainland section, once a week on the Cape Breton section and bridges are inspected annually.  

“We are subject to the Nova Scotia Railway Act but we follow federal regulations as well,” said Brault. “The province conducts the safety inspections on our lines as does Transport Canada and we have our own inspectors as well.”

In-depth analyses are measured with a track geometry car, built specifically to gather data on track position, curvature, alignment and any potential defects. The car houses ultrasonic equipment to detect internal rail breaks.

“If a problem is found, we immediately correct them,” said Brault. “It’s important to us.”

Monitoring is especially important considering the age of the rails. Brault said it isn’t uncommon for track to be 60 or 70 years old.

“They’re built for the long run and changed when they’re worn out. You have to remember this is a low density line and less impact on the rails.”

And yet, derailments continue to occur. In 2004, nine cars carrying propane and butane rolled off the tracks, forcing the evacuation of two schools and several homes. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined the accident was due to problems with the track on a curved section.

Investigations are still ongoing regarding more recent derailments.

“Any derailment is concerning to us because we’re determined to eliminate these events.  We have a lot of expertise within the company to prevent them and occasionally reach out to external resources too. We hate derailments as much as the public.”

Despite the aging rails and recent incidents, Brault feels that rail as a medium for moving goods is still safe and relevant in the 21st century. In fact, derailments are rare but noted because they’re spectacular and exaggerated. You rarely see a headline noting the safe arrival of a train from one destination to the next.

“The technology is constantly improving and we’re up to the challenge. For the quantities of materials moved, 99 per cent of our railcars make it to their destination.”

Organizations: Nova Scotia Railway, Canadian National Railways, Transport Canada Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Geographic location: Pictou County, Cape Breton, Trenton George Street New Glasgow Lansdowne Sydney Montreal Stellarton

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