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Souris mayor fears faster crude shipments could put residents at risk

Crude from Williston Basin implicated in massive infernos in Quebec and North Dakota

School bus crossing a railway track.

Souris might be about the only place in Western Canada this winter that is worried about trains moving too fast.

CP Rail’s plan to increase the speed limit of trains rolling through the southwestern Manitoba community has the town’s mayor worried that it might also increase the risk of a tragedy.

Darryl Jackson said CP notified his office in early February that the speed limit would be upped from 20 miles per hour to 26 m.p.h. within a week, and that at some as yet undetermined date, it would be increased to 40 m.p.h., or 64 km/h.

“Our position is that if truck and car traffic is limited to 50 km/h through town, why would we want rail traffic whirling through at 64 km/h? So we’re trying to find an avenue to buck this,” said Jackson.

Originating in southeast Saskatchewan, the CP line that angles through Souris on its way from Melita to Brandon passes through three crossings in the town.

One, on a side street, is guarded by little more than a stop sign, while the two major crossings have red warning lights installed, but no protective arms.

The busiest of the two crosses No. 2 highway, which also happens to be the town’s main artery, at a neck-straining angle, and the third intersects a Highway No. 250 heading north near a large grain elevator.

What worries Jackson most is the fact that much of the renewed rail traffic appears to be shipments of crude oil coming up from the booming oilpatch near Lyleton and Waskada, and possibly farther east.

“I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but there is a lot more oil traffic than we’ve ever seen before,” said Jackson.

“We’re worried that at those increased speeds — we’re not talking about grain, we’re talking about a combustible material — that for some people living near the tracks that it’s a potential danger.”

The light sweet crude from the Williston Basin, a major oil deposit that is being tapped in Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and the southwest corner of Manitoba, is rumoured to be “quite inflammable and combustible,” he added.

Crude from the area has already been implicated in a number of tragic accidents, including the Lac-Megantic, Que., disaster that killed 47 people and took four days to extinguish, and an accident and inferno in Casselton, North Dakota that caused the evacuation of 3,000 people.

Unlike most crude oil, which is typically black and gooey, production from the area is of such high quality that it reportedly has similar properties to gasoline, even in an unrefined state.

More from the Manitoba Co-operator: Small communities need to plan for big disasters

mature man wearing glasses
Darryl Jackson, Souris mayor photo: Daniel Winters

“It just adds up to the possibility of an issue,” said Jackson, who estimated that up to five trains pass through the town each day, with one late at night and another early in the morning.

Jackson said while there haven’t been any fatal rail accidents in town in recent years, there have been incidents involving livestock trailers at a rail crossing about eight miles north of Souris.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for CP Rail, confirmed that the company had issued a public service announcement advising local residents that the maximum operating track speed would be raised to 25 m.p.h. within the town of Souris, and 40 m.p.h. within the Rural Municipality of Glenwood, effective immediately.

“We have indicated and let town officials and residents know that we are looking at potentially raising the regulated track speed within the town of Souris to 40 m.p.h.,” said Greenberg.

“But before we get to 40 m.p.h. maximum regulated track speed, there’s going to be extensive due diligence done, not only ensuring that our track meets the required standards set down by federal regulators and our own company, but also to ensure the crossings meet requirements.”

Greenberg said that he could not divulge the nature or quantities of the commodities being transported, calling it “security-sensitive” information.

“But what I can say is that we do provide that information to local first responders so that they have the information for planning and training purposes,” he said.

Greenberg added that CP Rail has strict safety inspection rules that cover every aspect of its operations, from rolling stock to rail yards. Tanker cars are “shipper supplied,” but they are inspected to ensure safety before any are moved, he added.

“The safety and security of communities along our network is very important. We have employees and their families living in the region as well and we take safety very seriously,” said Greenberg.

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