From Lac-Mégantic to Lytton: Can Canada improve rail safety with zero-emission and autonomous tech?
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Sep 23, 2023
Emma Jarratt

Ten years on from Lac-Mégantic, Electric Autonomy looks at the rail industry’s safety and sustainability record in Canada

A freight train drives through the scorched landscape around Lytton B.C. in July 2023. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Ten years on from Lac-Mégantic, Electric Autonomy looks at the rail industry’s safety and sustainability record in Canada

The wind roaring across the ruined streets of Lytton, B.C., is strong enough to push a person sideways.

With no structures to impede them, the gusts send waves of scrub, sand and gravel rolling across blank lots. These empty spots are where homes, businesses and community buildings used to be.

Despite July 2023 being the hottest month globally in 120,000 years, “Canada’s Hot Spot” is sitting at an unusually cool 20 C on this day.

The village of Lytton in July 2023.
A large staircase in the centre of the village and melted streetlights are a few of the surviving remnants of the June 2021 fire that razed the community. Photo: Electric Autonomy

But it’s not difficult to imagine how, just over two years previously — when the community was still a 250-resident strong village with a vibrant culture — the same wind turned a spark on a 49 C day into a fire that wiped the community off the map.

“It was such a monster. That fire was literally a monster,” recalls Denise O’Connor, Lytton’s mayor, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

“It was just this billowing, unbelievable thing coming at us. In the wind the embers were coming. I could see fire going along the railroad tracks. We just ran for our lives.”

Lytton, like many other communities across Canada, has rail lines. Each piece of freight clanking through the village represents hundreds of jobs, tens of thousands of dollars spent and, potentially, another catastrophe.

Josipa Petrunic
Josipa Petrunic is the president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). Photo: LinkedIn

“Climate, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and the extreme need for moving people and freight by rail has never converged as it is converging now,” says Josipa Petrunic, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

The need for rail is more extreme then ever, says Petrunic, “yet the potential for disaster is even higher.”

Fortunately, so has the potential for greater safety.

“Imagine the possibilities of combining driverless technology and automation with AI layering on top of the climate piece and layering on top of risk aversion processes. We would be able to efficiently operate our systems, but also save lives.”

Compared to many jurisdictions around the world, Canada’s rail industry has been slow in adopting zero-emission and automated technologies. But these new, cleaner and more advanced technologies could help the rail industry decarbonize and become safer, say some experts.

“For well over half a decade everybody in the industry has consistently been talking about the need to introduce more automation into our rail sector. Freight in particular, but also for the benefit of passenger rail,” says Petrunic.

“But we’re not even at the starting point for a rail strategy that integrates safety, decarbonization and the use of smart infrastructure with the overlay of climate emergency. So, that’s where we have to get to.”

Rail operations in Canada

Rail is an essential component of travel and transportation in Canada.

It generates $10 billion per year and is the main method of moving goods across the country.

The national railways are hewn into the sides of mountains, criss-cross thousands of kilometres of empty wilderness and teeter on bridges hundreds of metres long. They are a testament to some of the most challenging engineering feats.

Headshot of Gordon Lovegrove
Gordon Lovegrove is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Kelowna campus. Photo: LinkedIn

Gordon Lovegrove is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Kelowna campus. He’s also a city councillor and self-professed “engineer who’s a tree hugger.”

He specializes in public transit, specifically rail.

“Rail predates the country. It is the backbone of our economy — 40 per cent of everything carried [is by rail],” says Lovegrove.

In Canada, rail accounts for four per cent of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But, notes Lovegrove, “triple or four times that amount for yard switchers in urban areas, shuttling cars back and forth.”

There are approximately 49,000 km of rail tracks in Canada. It’s the fifth most extensive rail system in the world. Most trains run on diesel or diesel-electric power and 80 per cent of all rail trips are freight.

Canada’s railways (on the freight side) have two operators: Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) and Canadian National Railway (CN).

Electric Autonomy approached both CP and CN for interviews about their respective approaches to adopting autonomous, zero-emission technology as well as how climate change impacts their operations.

In lieu of an interview CP said in a brief emailed statement: “Our goal is to continue to be the safest Class 1 railroad in North America. As we build our business for the future, we are taking action to reduce our own GHG emissions by setting a science-based 2030 emissions reduction target and committing to develop a 1.5oC aligned target for our combined company, while supporting broader decarbonization efforts in the freight rail industry.”

CN declined Electric Autonomy‘s request for an interview and did not respond to a series of emailed questions.

Rail safety in Canada

Transportation Board of Canada and Transport Canada regulates the entire rail industry — including passenger trains.

In 2022, according to data from the Transportation Board of Canada, there were 995 rail accidents. Thirty-two per cent involved freight trains.

“When you look at it — and assuming the numbers and the data they’ve got are correct — the accident rate has being been going up on average three per cent a year for the last 10 or 11 years. So, that statistic is going in the wrong direction,” says Ian Naish, president of Naish Transportation Consulting, of main-line accidents, specifically.

Main-track accidents and accident rates, 2012 to 2022. Image: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Naish is a 38-year veteran in Canada’s rail industry. He has been on hand for many if not all of Canada’s rail disasters since the 1980s.

At 21 years old, with a civil engineering degree in hand, he left home (Surrey, UK) to attend the University of New Brunswick. There he obtained a master’s degree in transportation.

After graduation, Naish went into government, then the private sector (picking up an MBA along the way) and then, finally, landed back at Transport Canada (then called the Canadian Transport Commission). This was around the time of the 1986 Hinton train crash in Alberta.

Juxtaposing advancements around the world (which, in turn, are leading to better safety), Naish says the progress in using smart, clean rail technology in Canada is slow.

“What frustrates me is seeing a lack of teeth that are there and the lack of using them when they should be used,” he says.

“If you held the railway’s feet to the fire and said you’ve got to do a proper risk assessment and this that and the other, there’s lots of people in the room that already know what’s wrong. They can see what’s wrong and they’re not being listened to, in my opinion.”

It’s in times of catastrophe (i.e., the aftermath of an accident) that a regulatory reckoning comes. Suddenly, a spotlight is shines on the things that weren’t done that should have been.

There is one rail accident in particular that stands out.

“Lac Mégantic,” sighs Naish. “So many things went wrong. It’s unbelievable.”

The Lac-Mégantic derailment

The images of Lac Mégantic after a freight train derailed and exploded in the middle of the night are apocalyptic.

Sitting in a Kelowna cafe sipping an herbal tea from a mug he brought over from his nearby home, Lovegrove recalls the night 10 years before when Canada’s second-deadliest rail disaster happened.

It was 1:15 a.m. on July 6, 2013. A freight train operated by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway carrying 72 tank cars of crude oil barrelled into the downtown core of Lac-Mégantic in southeastern Quebec.

Travelling at 105 kilometres per hour, according to the TSB’s investigation, 63 trains cars jumped the track at the centre of town. They exploded in a fireball — the heat of which was felt a kilometre away.

Forty-seven people died and 2,000 people evacuated from the blast site. Lovegrove spent hours on television parsing out how the accident could have happened.

A lengthy investigation by the TSB said the cause of the disaster was multi-faceted with 18 factors “influencing one another.”

Headshot of Ian Naish
Ian Naish is the president of Naish Transportation Consulting. Photo: LinkedIn

Seven of them were to do with locomotive mechanics and safety.

“That’s not the sign of a healthy industry, when you can let things like that go,” says Naish. “And it’s probably not the sign of a healthy regulatory regime. They let things go on that did go on and they didn’t use their teeth.”

It comes down, Lovegrove believes, to rail companies fighting to make their bottom line. Often, the safety checks and balances causing financial pressure on railway operators are the first to go. Those cuts can set the system up for a disaster.

“If you keep reducing things and you don’t have any significant increase in technology to compensate for that, you’re gonna have problems,” says Naish.

Petrunic is agrees. But with the added concern that an absence of leadership to effect changes to modernize Canada’s rail systems is preventing adoption of best practices that reflect the operating realities of today.

These realities are: more urban sprawl putting a greater number of people near to rail lines, rapid climate change and an unrelenting pressure to deliver goods faster.

“Rail is operating in a less trusted environment and the climate emergency is a part of that,” says Petrunic.

“When disaster occurs, it’s extraordinarily catastrophic.”

Government and industry

The TSB is an independent body focussing on operational safety and accident investigation. Transport Canada’s role in the railway industry is a bit more varied.

“Transport Canada is a rail safety regulator and it’s essentially the rail economics regulator as well. There’s sort of a conflict there between economics and safety,” says Naish.

“There’s a tendency [in the rail industry] to make change very, very slowly. If they can’t make money on an innovation right away, in my opinion and what I’ve seen is, they tend to drag their feet on innovation. But we’ve got a climate change crisis and dragging your feet doesn’t really help these days.”

Naish says the changing environments in which trains are operating is bleeding over into safety concerns. Hotter temperatures can buckle tracks while wash outs and landslides from once-in-50-year super storms are happening every five years.

“Transport Canada recognizes that climate action is essential to achieving our national and international climate change targets,” the government body confirms to Electric Autonomy in an emailed response to questions. “Meeting Canada’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals will require a significant reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector, including difficult-to-abate modes like rail.”

“At this time, Transport Canada does not have plans for regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for rail.”

A train drives alongside a burned forest near Lytton, B.C.
A train drives alongside a burned forest near Lytton, B.C. Photo: Electric Autonomy

In lieu of binding emissions reduction regulation for the rail industry (as seen in the passenger and commercial vehicle industries) Transport Canada relies on a “longstanding voluntary Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to reduce locomotive emissions” with the Railway Association of Canada, it writes in its email.

Some rail experts, like Lovegrove, are doubtful that it is enough.

“So, it’s voluntary compliance. We’re in a climate crisis and we’re in a technology revolution,” he says. “You’ve heard necessity is the mother of invention? We have the invention sitting on the shelf, we also have the business case staring us in the face.”

A 2020 report from the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) states, “Canada’s adoption and implementation of alternative propulsion technologies…is slower than most developed countries and some developing countries, such as Morocco and China.”

But Transport Canada says it is investing appropriately in rail technology that would decarbonize and improve safety.

In its emailed statement, it points to the Clean Transportation System Research and Development program. In 2021, four rail-related projects received funding after a request for proposals, including one Lovegrove is working on.

However, Lovegrove says the research often goes nowhere outside of the lab or classroom. This, he says, is because there is no imperative for the rail industry to adopt it.

“We need some strong leadership. If it was regulated as such it would be done decades ago. For years light-, medium- and heavy-duty road vehicles have had self-monitoring technologies. We just need our politicians to step up to have the courage. They’ve got all the ammunition they need.”

The Lytton wildfire

Fast forward 10 years from Lac-Mégantic and across Canada to Lytton, where rail safety is once again under scrutiny.

On hot days Lytton residents must feel like they are living in a hair dryer. The wind rarely stops whipping through the narrow cut in the mountains.

Owen Collings headshot
Owen Collings, Lytton resident. Photo: LinkedIn

But, for the three days in June 2021 before the fire began, the village was completely “eerily still,” recalls Owen Collings, a Lytton resident, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

A heat dome had settled over the semi-desert village built up the mountainside and located alongside the Fraser River. For 72 hours the village sweltered in nearly 50 C heat. It finally reached a Canada all-time record high temperature of 49.6 C.

When the fire broke out Collings was across the river with his wife working in their market garden. All he could do was watch from the opposite bank of the Fraser.

It only took 40 minutes for the flames to completely engulf Lytton’s main street.

“When I was watching my home burn and the neighbours’ homes there was this tragic emptiness in me,” says Collings, who volunteered as a “sifter” (a resident helping to recover people’s belongings) after the fire. He is now working as site support for the community’s rebuild.

Wearing personal protective equipment and standing near twisted metal benches and half-melted Muskoka chairs Collings gestures to a railroad crossing sign and an old school bell standing in the middle of a blank lot backing onto the river.

“That was the museum,” he says. “The community pool was to the left. And the firehall was to the right.”

A railway crossing sign and school bell in Lytton
A railway crossing sign and a school bell survived the 2021 Lytton fire, but the rest of the museum, and the artifacts inside, burned. Photo: Electric Autonomy

While unearthing what little remained from the fire, Collings says his wife (who also volunteered as a sifter) found their wedding bands.

They had melted together inside the metal keepsafe box where the couple kept them while at their market garden.

The cause of the Lytton fire is the source of a furious debate. It is playing out across multiple government, investigative and policing agencies, the courts, Lytton’s residents and the rail line operators in the area: CN and CP.

Currently there is no confirmed cause of the fire, (believed to have begun near one of the village’s rail lines), that killed two Lytton residents and burned the surrounding area for another two months, ultimately incinerating 800 square kilometres.

The TSB concluded its investigation in October 2021. It determined there was no evidence linking trains operating in the area to the fire.

Separate RCMP and B.C. Wildfire Service investigations into any criminality or causes that led to the fire remain ongoing.

But the residents of Lytton and nearby Lytton First Nation (equally as devastated by the fire) are adamant: it was a spark thrown from a train passing along the tracks at the base of the village (there is also a line that cuts through the middle of the village, farther up the hill) 18 minutes before the fire was first reported.

A class action law suit brought by two Lytton residents reflects that view. But, in August, the B.C. Supreme Court refused to certify the lawsuit. It is, however, allowing the one remaining plaintiff (the other, O’Connor’s husband, died in May 2023) to amend their pleading.

Headshot of Denise O'Connor, mayor of Lytton
Denise O’Connor, mayor of Lytton. Photo: Village of Lytton

“We just know that it was a train that started it,” says O’Connor, gesturing at the empty space around her.

Happening parallel to the 2021 investigations and court proceedings, in December 2022 the B.C. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that CN must pay $16.2 million for a fire near Lytton in 2015. At that time the fire danger level was “extreme.”

That fire began in June 2015 and burned until October of the same year. In total, 2,400 hectares were burned, Lytton First Nation was evacuated, the Village of Lytton put on evacuation alert and one building destroyed.

“Historically, all around here, trains start fires,” says O’Connor. “It’s not unusual.”

A measurable impact

The Lac-Mégantic investigation made five recommendations to improve rail safety in Canada. In 10 years, just three of five have been implemented.

One of the two outstanding recommendations is: “Transport Canada must take a more hands-on role when it comes to railways’ safety management systems — making sure not just that they exist, but that they are working and that they are effective.”

But will adopting more modern technologies, more quickly actually improve safety as well as decarbonize the rail industry in Canada?

“Yes, in short answer,” says Lovegrove.

The 2020 CUTRIC report cites research from the State University of New York. The research found artificial intelligence technologies applied to rail operations has a positive impact on safety and accident avoidance.

And, the report says, some AI technology is already in use in Canada.

“CN showed its autonomous track-inspection car that uses laser and LIDAR technology to detect broken ties and defects on the track,” reads the report — though there is significant room for further adoption.

“We are well positioned in Canada to not just talk the talk of AI and big data, but actually immediately leverage it for rail,” says Petrunic.

“Through these technologies we will have real time sensor-based reporting and real time sensor based mitigations and course correction for track. Layered on top of the track element is the ability of AI to predictively and then empirically, in real time, calculate the extreme weather conditions that could exacerbate the potential for track or train operations creating fire conditions.”

And, at a slow pace and on a small scale, some Canadian rail operators are exploring other cleaner, smarter technology.

This year Canada’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train ran (on a private railway) in Quebec as part of a pilot program.

Last year, Calgary-based CP put its experimental hydrogen locomotive into operation in Alberta for freight transport. It says its putting another two hydrogen-powered trains into operation by the end of this year.

CP’s hydrogen program is described by the company’s chair, Isabelle Courville, in the 2022 annual report as “enabling an energy transition that has only happened once in CP’s 140 year history, when the steam to diesel transition occurred.”

And, in 2021, CN purchased its first battery-electric locomotive from Wabtec. That locomotive is anticipated to go into service this year.

Does it work?

Today, Naish works in rail safety consulting. His job that takes him from Saudi Arabia to Ireland and most places in between.

He studies the latest rail technologies, advises on regulatory policies and learns about what strategies are working and what aren’t. The biggest concerns are avoiding crashes and dealing with climate change.

“In France, at least, their whole approach is prevention. The Irish government actually did stuff on that about five years ago and they completely changed their maintenance approach to the bridges, embankments and the culverts,” says Naish.

“The thing is — with investment, with technology — you can you can make lots of changes and you can do lots of things more safely. A fair chunk of fires are caused by carbon buildup on the exhaust grids of the locomotives. The embers come off and they travel quite a way. That would remove one issue of causes of fires if you had hydrogen powered locomotives.”

It’s too early to measure if the latest track-level automated or zero-emission locomotives in Canada are improving safety or emissions. (Plus, the results would be on a very small scale.)

Petrunic, like Naish, says industry and stakeholders in Canada seeking data should look to the European Union where AI has been in wide-spread use for longer in the rail industry.

However, she says, there is one standout Canadian example of an automated, intelligent, zero-emission rail: the SkyTrain in Vancouver.

For those who have never been on it, the SkyTrain is a fully electrified, driverless light rapid transit system that runs on 79.6 km of track through the Metro Vancouver Region.

It opened in 1985.

“It’s just a great example of how on passenger rail that is urban-oriented; safety, efficiency and operations have been improved substantially through driver controls — well before AI was available,” says Petrunic.

Today, the SkyTrain has technology to stop the train when it detects an issue on the tracks. There has never been a collision between two in-service trains and just three derailments.

And, earlier this year another fully automated, electric passenger train went into service in Quebec: the automated light rail Réseau express métropolitain (REM) in Greater Montreal.

“The way things are going on the transit commuter lines seems very positive from a safety perspective,” says Naish.

“So, maybe some of that knowledge can be transferred.”

A growing appetite to take action

The dates of rail incidents and accidents in Canada are not easily forgotten.

They are events that, while rare compared to road accidents, are infamous for the scale of devastation they can cause.

“Everyone handles the trauma in their own way. Many people I know have been actually diagnosed with PTSD. There’s people that still can’t even drive through here hardly,” says O’Connor, sitting near a plaque that reads “Canada’s Hotspot” in what used to be a park in Lytton.

Lytton B.C.'s "Canada's Hotspot" plaque
Lytton B.C.’s “Canada’s Hotspot” plaque bears the scars of the 2021 fire. Photo: Electric Autonomy

“With a situation where literally 99.9 per cent of everything is gone…That side of it, it’s such an impact on us as a community.”

But there is a common refrain among many rail accident survivors, industry watchdogs and experts alike: it could have been avoided.

And, slowly, it seems, there may be an industry and government appetite to modernize how goods and people are moved across Canada by adopting cleaner, smarter technology in rail operations.

“There would be the capability of CP and CN and others to have much better, much more refined, much more precise estimation of profitability versus extreme risk and manage these conditions with AI,” says Petrunic.

“You could imagine a scenario where policy exists that says about certain temperatures your train should not be operating and not having to rely on drivers, not having to even rely on a rail company. In 2010, it was inconceivable that it would happen. In 2023 it is conceivable that it could happen.”

At this point, Lovegrove says, there is an economic and legal imperative to change and improve the way goods move by rail. But there is also a moral one that demands greater urgency than what’s been demonstrated previously.

“We’re people. We have kids, we have grandkids. So, we’re wanting to push a green future,” says Lovegrove.

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