Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 4th, 2007

CN Rail faces 5 charges over 2005 spill in B.C. river

with 5 comments

CBC News August 4

This event made me so angry I have a difficult time writing coherently about it. Naturally the official enquiry looked at what happened on the day of the incident – and immediately preceding it. But there is an awful sense that this incident – or something very like it was entirely predictable. While CN, quite properly, will carry the can, the real perpetrator in my mind is Gordon Campbell. He bears the ultimate responsibility. For it was he who said unequivocally, prior to his election, that he would not privatize BC Rail, and then did exactly that.

BC Rail’s operational route from North Vancouver to Lillooet has always been very difficult. It was hard to build and worse to operate. BC Rail had built up a wealth of experience about running trains on a steep and winding track. That experience was lost when CN took over, as they bought out the contracts of staff who understood why it was important that things be done the way they were. CN brought in its own people and started to “rationalise” the locomotive fleet. The operation of the southern end of the line is actually not critical to CN as they have their own route to the north from Vancouver, which is easier and cheaper to run. They were obliged to keep it going for the first five years of the lease but will obviously abandon the route as soon as they can.

So the take over was about cutting costs. Fewer, longer trains. But without the local knowledge that would have told them that this was a risky undertaking and without the specific knowledge about how to keep the distributed power all pulling in the same direction. Yes, CN must bear responsibility for their cavalier attitudes. But so must the BC Government for abandoning its commitments. It is also important to note that when it was sold off it was actually doing quite well. Many of the problems had been understood and rectified. The similarities with British rail are interesting. Arguably, BR just before it was broken up was doing better than it ever had- and that is in commercial accounting terms, not just social cost benefit.

But social CBA is why governments have to be in the railway business. Trying to make railways commercially viable in all their aspects is just a sop to the road lobby – who by no means pay for the full social costs of their infrastructure and get much more subsidy now than the railways did on the heyday. If for no other reason than the fact that a steel wheel on a steel rail is still the most efficient way to transfer energy from its source to motive power, governments must support railways in a world that has already run out of cheap energy.

The privatization of British Railways lead to a series a rail disasters – unprecedented in the system’s history – mainly due to the separation of responsibilities between track and train operations. The privatization of BC Rail was done differently but had a hideously similar result – though the human death toll has been much lower. Both are the results of dogmatic insistence that private businesses are better than public ones. This is not only wrong, it is willfully ignorant. Businesses were taken into public ownership – especially railways – because the private sector failed to meet legitimate public needs. There are values that are not always captured well by the market – if at all. And if we are to achieve important societal objectives – like having safe trains – then some measure of public control and cost support is inevitable. Just staring at the bottom line all the time means you miss out things which are important. Like ecosystems.

And no sooner did I finish this piece, and look at my RSS feeds than I turn up this headline
CN train aflame near Prince George

Written by Stephen Rees

August 4, 2007 at 12:36 pm