TORONTO – CN Rail’s (TSX:CNR) strong and swift response to the derailment of a fuel-laden train in Alberta shows how anxious the company is to quell safety concerns as more dangerous goods travel by rail, experts said Sunday.
The railway company dispatched its top brass, led by Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena, to handle the crisis after 13 cars carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas came off the tracks and caught fire early Saturday west of Edmonton.
Within less than 24 hours, the company had publicly apologized for the disruption, while stressing the vast majority of its cargo arrives safely without incident.
“They have their COO out there, they’ve apologized, they’re keeping everybody informed — that’s all really good stuff,” said Michael Davis, managing director of the Vancouver consulting firm Reputations.
“The reason is they’re terrified they’re going to pop up… above the radar and all of a sudden they’re going to start getting all this public pressure on the amount of oil products and petroleum products that are being shipped by rail,” he said Sunday.
CN’s efforts may not be enough to counteract mounting safety concerns over hauling dangerous goods by rail, however, Davis said, pointing to last summer disaster in Quebec involving another rail company.
“They have popped up onto the public radar because of Lac-Megantic and then the other derailments over the last little while… and I think they’re going to run into the same kind of ferocious opposition as pipelines are getting,” he said.
Saturday’s disaster was the company’s third derailment involving hazardous goods in recent weeks. No one was hurt, but several cars leaked gas and burst into a giant fireball.
The incident came amid reports that CN is looking into shipping Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert, B.C. in quantities matching the controversial North Gateway pipeline.
The company has denied the reports but said it would consider any such project as it comes up.
There has also been a heated debate over shipping oil by rail since a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train careened into the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in July, levelling much of the community and claiming an estimated 47 lives.
The way the rail company’s parent company handled the Quebec disaster was widely criticized.
Ed Burkhardt, the president of Chicago-based Rail World, didn’t arrive in the Quebec community until four days after the disaster occurred. His apology to residents was greeted with jeers and insults. Many also raised eyebrows because in the hours before he arrived he cracked some jokes about the angry response he was likely to receive.
In Gainsford, where Saturday’s train derailment occurred, Vena made a public apology to the roughly 100 residents who were forced from their homes, expressing regret for the inconvenience the incident caused.
CN Rail public affairs and media relations officials were both on the scene and working the phones trying to present the rail line’s safety record in the best possible light.
The contrast between the two railway companies’ responses is staggering, said Kenneth Wong, a marketing expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“In Lac-Megantic, there was no indication of contrition and certainly no sense of compassion that was demonstrated despite the fact that it was a massive disaster,” he said.
“The CN derailments haven’t been nearly of that magnitude… and yet we see a business here that is really pulling out all the stops to defend its brand,” he added.
The company nonetheless faces an uphill battle, Davis said.
Though CN pointed out that more than 99 per cent of its shipments arrive without accidental release, statistics can’t trump shocking photos of the flame-engulfed train cars, he said.
“They’re competing against a very visceral visual,” he said.