Halfway up the Transport Canada tower in Ottawa is a secure emergency action facility with all the bells and whistles needed if something goes horribly wrong in any of the ministry’s many jurisdictions—from train wrecks to oil-spilling ocean cargo ships.

In this situation room, there are cameras capturing on-scene visuals from possibly thousands of kilometres away, and state-of-the-art walky-talkies to get updates from key personnel on the ground, or helicopters circling the disaster site.

The facility has a Star Trek vibe.

Ten years ago, on July 6, that room was focused on the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Que., when an unattended runaway train derailed with 72 oil tankers aboard. The explosion was epic. Forty-seven residents were killed and half the town of 6,000 was burned to the ground.

From that room halfway up Ottawa’s Transport Canada tower, specialists watched a live-stream video of Lac-Megantic’s horror, discussed scenarios with key personnel at the scene, and watched as a thousand firefighters struggled to stifle the blaze that burned two full days.

The Canadian Press reported on how Transportation Safety Board chair Kathy Fox was in the school auditorium a year later to deliver the agency’s report on the tragedy – and the failures that allowed an unattended train carrying 72 tankers full of crude oil to careen off the rails at over 100 km/h, bursting into flames in the heart of the community.

“You can imagine the grief, the shock, the anger, all the emotions,” Fox recalled. “It was a hard day.”

In that briefing, as well, were 27 orphaned children.

Fox, reported by the Canadian Press, kept on her desk a photograph of the Lac-Megantic streetscape before the accident. Framed in view were the Musi-Café—where 30 of the victims were killed when the fireball erupted and, in the distance, the local church.

“It is a daily reminder of what happened,” Fox said. “We don’t ever, ever want to see another Lac-Megantic.”

I have been in that situation room halfway up the Transport Canada town when Lisa Raitt was minister and I was her communications director and speech writer.

There had been a substantial oil spill in the Vancouver Harbor, and being in that room was the next best thing to being there.

Lac-Megantic must have been organized chaos.

During her term as transport minister, Raitt worked tirelessly to get safer tanker cars than the DOT-111, which were the majority in both Canada and the United States, retiring them when replaced by a more modern and safer rail car.

The new law would require new DOT-111 tank cars be built with thicker steel requirements, as well as a top fitting and head shield protection.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s The House, Raitt said she planned to meet with officials from Canada and the United States to figure out what to do with the existing stock of DOT-111 rail cars. 

“The problem is that there is a higher demand for cars,” she said. “Now the good news is that as the demand increases and the new cars are being added to the line, they are going to be at a tougher new standard, there’s no question.

“But you’re right — what do you do with the other over 100,000 DOT-111 cars that are still out there?”

In 2009, according to the Railway Association of Canada, there were 529 carloads of Canadian crude oil shipped by rail across North America. By 2013, the year of the Lac-Megantic tragedy, that figure had jumped to 160,000 carloads.

In the United States that year, the Association of American Railroads said there were roughly 228,000 DOT-111 rail cars  in operation.

In 2016, then-Liberal Transport Minister Marc Garneau issued a directive to accelerate the phasing out the legacy DOT-111 tanker cars which were the least crash resistant.

Furthermore, all DOT-111 cars must be completely phased out for all flammable liquids by April 30, 2025.

Part of the solution? Pipelines.


  • Mark Bonokoski

    Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.