This piece was carried in the November 15-30, 2013 issue of Canada's People's Voice.

Copyright (c) 2013 Graham L. Wilson. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page.


On the night of October 18, 2013 I was witness to a tremendous event. Around 1:00 am, a train derailed along the tracks lining Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail) between the Seba Beach exit and the nearby hamlet of Gainford, Alberta. Carrying tanker cars filled with petroleum gas, propane and other flammable substances, the train exploded in a massive fireball, its smoke reaching up into the air as a mushroom cloud.

Despite being approximately ten kilometres away, myself and my brothers could see the night sky bathed in a sudden eerie orange glow. Turning north, we saw it personally: large, bright as day, almost unreal ‑ it could have been right next to us.

Working on this assumption, we rushed out towards the smoke and the glow to see if we were in any immediate fire risk and whether we needed to start taking precautions. Running through field after field, into neighbouring property, we reached the gravel road just at the edge of our hilltop locale. From there we could see that it was in fact far away, and we guessed Gainford as the location. Assured that it was at least not our problem, but still without a definite guess as to what happened, we returned home with various cataclysmic theories running through our minds.

We were lucky to actually witness the event, as the rest of our family only noticed the short power blip ‑ sadly, not a very telling indication given how badly our power systems have degraded since Ralph Klein's privatizations of the 1990s. It was not until the next morning that we heard the cause, and learned that three other cars were still burning. Unable to approach, emergency workers had no choice but to let it burn off. A large section of Highway 16 was cut off, merely annoying for us, but presumably quite inconvenient for others ‑ and certainly nothing compared to the troubles of the people of Gainford who were hurriedly evacuated and kept away until four days later.

Anyone following the news of late would be struck by a strange feeling of déja vu. In July a similar incident occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That explosion devastated the community and left a death toll of forty‑two, with five others classified as missing but presumed dead. Luckily for us in Alberta, there were no fatalities and only minimal damage. No one happened to be driving on that stretch of 16 at that time, which aerial photos showed darkened by scorch‑marks. CN spokesperson Warren Chandler's claim that such comparisons are "extremely unfair" seems to belie the truth that, in other circumstances, things could have been much worse.

Further, this is only one of many derailments in Alberta and elsewhere over the past few months, including three in October, one just two days earlier in Sexsmith. Another near Peers occurred on November 3, just 90 kilometres from the previous incident.

The fireball of Gainford may have attracted international attention, but the larger cycle has no clear end in sight as incident after incident hits the news, with the local area still poisoned by the derailment of August 3, 2005, when forty-three cars of a westbound CN freight train derailed, spilling pole treating oil into Wabamun Lake, forcing twenty people from their homes and polluting the lake.

True to character, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has de‑regulated the rail industry, and has let Transport Canada fail in its responsibilities, with predictable results; deferred maintenance, infrequent inspections and aging equipment produce deathtraps. Although CN has stated the track at Gainford was recently inspected, and the cause of the derailment is still unknown, it is wise to consider the potential dangers that could be wrought through such policies. The amount of oil and other volatile chemicals carried by rail has notably expanded in recent years, more than tripling between 2011 and 2012, and is expected to rise still further.

Bear in mind that the train was run by Canadian National, the very same company for which the Conservatives lovingly wrote back‑to‑work legislation mere hours after their employees walked off the job, waiting only for the labour minister to awaken the next morning.

Union‑bashing should hardly inspire public trust, especially after a CBC investigation recently alleged that CN has actively ordered its employees to falsify statistics and to otherwise fake its dwell time and train speed, under fear of reprisal. In addition, ex‑employee Tim Wallender has asserted in a whistleblower lawsuit that CN has routinely covered up minor derailments, sending trains back on the track without proper wheel inspection. This makes CN's claims of an improving safety record all the more dubious.

This is not simply a matter of raising profits for rail companies however, which indeed are at record highs. The Harper government has a secondary objective, as right‑wing pro‑business groups of all stripes continue using these inevitable disasters as arguments for the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines.

While there is a case to the claim that pipelines are less likely to cause loss of life, it really is a false dichotomy, even without considering the environmental costs of such developments, as there should not really be such need for large scale oil transportation. Progressives have long been pushing for Alberta and Canada to develop its own refineries in order to process our petroleum extracts closer to hand.

Processing our own oil would not only reduce the risks of transporting bitumen, but it would also create more value‑added jobs here in Canada, and thus give more back to those most damaged by the effects of tar sands production. It is further argued that doing this would allow more money to be kept inside the country for economic diversification and the deployment of renewable energy, ending the problem once and for all with a clean transfer of employment to other sectors.

Instead, our refining capacity is in a steady decline, and the last new refinery in Canada opened in 1982. Claims that such a move is "economically unviable", now under heavier dispute in light of the "bitumen bubble", hold absolutely no moral water as the human costs of oil transportation become more apparent by the day. We can do better, not just in the short term, but in the long term by sensibly managing a retreat from the carbon economy.

- Graham L. Wilson
November 10, 2013