Canada orders rail safety measures to reduce risk of wildfires

Canada on Sunday ordered rail transport restrictions for areas where there is a high wildfire risk in both British Columbia and nationally after a blaze wiped out the B.C. town of Lytton and killed two people earlier this month.

The order will require both Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to take a number of precautions to protect against wildfires, including reducing train speeds, Transport Canada said in a statement.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on Friday ordered a 48-hour stop to rail transport in parts of B.C., which expired Saturday at midnight. The new restrictions took effect on Sunday morning and will remain until Oct. 31.

The order “will put in place interim measures while the department works with railway companies to incorporate these fire risk reduction measures on a permanent basis,” the department said.

“Safety is foundational to everything we do and CP will fully comply with the new [Transport Canada] directive,” CP said in a statement in response to questions from CBC News on Sunday.

CN also said in an emailed response that safety was a core value of the company and it was “fully engaged” in both an ongoing Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation and the relief effort underway in Lytton.

“As always we will continue to strictly follow protocols and regulations when operating,” the statement said.

The TSB on Friday said it was deploying teams of investigators to see if freight trains were potentially responsible for sparking two fires, including the one that ravaged Lytton, B.C. The safety board said it was responding to new information on the suspected source of a devastating wildfire.

Damaged structures and vehicles are seen in Lytton, B.C., on July 9, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The TSB said Friday the information came by way of probes by the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service. It is not yet known which rail line is linked to the train in question, and neither Canadian National nor Canadian Pacific has filed any occurrence reports related to the Lytton fire, the board said.

CN has said its trains were not linked to the fire, and CP resumed its service through Lytton on Monday.

The Lytton blaze erupted after the town broke Canada’s more than 80-year-old heat record with a 49.6 C temperature on June 29. There are now 297 wildfires burning in British Columbia, according to official data.

The recent heat wave and parched conditions combined to raise the fire risk in many parts of the province to high or extreme.

Lightning also continued to challenge wildfire crews in the province in the past few days.

The new order calls for at least 10 fire-detection patrols every 24 hours on stretches of track that run through Lytton. It also makes conductors responsible for spotting and reporting fires on those lines and requires removal of combustible materials following “vegetation control measures.”

The order also spelled out localized safety measures for operations between Kamloops and Boston Bar or between Kamloops and North Bend on the Thompson and Ashcroft branch tracks.

Nationally, trains will have to run at reduced speeds when there is extreme fire risk and when the outdoor temperature is high. CN and CP will also be required to come up with a fire risk mitigation plan and consult with Indigenous communities about fire hazards.

Under the ministerial order, the two companies must ensure speeds are reduced along Class 1 railways, the largest in the country, once temperatures reach 30 C and above.

Wildfires burning across B.C. damaged rail lines and idled thousands of rail cars last week. This caused a backlog of freight shipments in and out of the port of Vancouver, which is slowly starting to clear.

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