Strathroy train crash: rail-safety advocates are weighing in after 13 cars of a 120-car freight train derailed in the middle of this London-area town

STRATHROY- Strathroy dodged a bullet Wednesday, but serious questions remain — about public safety and the fallout for rail passengers — after a freight train derailed in the middle of town.

Thirteen cars on the 120-car freight left the tracks in the early-morning derailment. No one was hurt and no homes damaged. The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause.

There were other questions, including the risk to the public from trains that often haul dangerous goods through Southwestern Ontario, a major petrochemical-producing region linked to the U.S. industrial heartland.

If you were trying to travel by train between Toronto and Sarnia, a city of more than 70,000, there was also a nagging reminder that Canada’s rail passenger service takes a back seat to freight trains, forced to wait — in this case, at least three days — for the line to be cleared and service to resume.

Why? Because Via doesn’t run on its own lines.

The hazards associated with derailments are a fact of life for cities and towns built around train tracks, rail safety expert Richard Plokhaar said. “That risk is a well-known, accepted risk. If you want to change that, you need to invest a lot of money, of course.”

Strathroy-Caradoc Mayor Joanne Vanderheyden echoed that sentiment, saying “accidents happen.”

“It’s a reality we have. Every municipality in Ontario pretty much grew up around a track and you can’t get rid of all the tracks in Canada,” she said.

“We have had those wake-up calls, with Lac-Mégantic, and we have worked with CN and CP to make it as safe as possible . . . but trains will have issues,” Vanderheyden said, referring to the 2013 Quebec rail disaster that killed dozens and devastated the town when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded.

The Sarnia-bound train from Toronto went off the tracks between the crossings at Caradoc and Richmond streets in Strathroy at 4:15 a.m., scattering debris and shutting many

level crossings in the Middlesex County town, About 21,000 people live in the wider area.

Damage was confined to CN property, police said.

The derailment occurred just off the downtown, near towering landmark grain elevators.

“If it was busy here, it could have been a lot worse,” Strathroy-Caradoc police Const. Mark Thuss said, noting the area is congested with vehicles and pedestrians during the day.

Just how lucky the town was to escape major damage was underlined at a car dealership, metres from the scene, where one vehicle had a few scratches after a train wheel came to a rest behind it.

“We got lucky,” the manager said. “All and all, God is with us,”

Christine Welch, who lives a block from the scene, said she awoke to a loud crashing sound Wednesday morning: “It sounded like a plane coming down, it just kept getting louder.”

Two of the derailed cars carried environmentally sensitive chemicals, while the others contained paper and agricultural products or were empty, said a CN spokesperson.

A small amount of one of those chemicals, petro alkylate, used in the manufacturing of plastics, leaked onto the track and was cleaned up, CN’s Jonathan Abecassis said in an email.

The derailment brought a steady stream of onlookers to the crash scene. Emergency workers moved back the police barrier tape after photo-snapping citizens kept getting too close.

Via said its two trains daily between Sarnia and Toronto are cancelled until Friday, along with Thursday night’s London-Sarnia train and an early-morning Sarnia-London run Friday.

What others said

“Something like this happening is always in the back of our heads ... Municipalities ... test out their plans and have mock disasters. Well, this wasn’t a mock disaster, it was real, and there are maybe a few things we can learn from it.”

— Strathroy-Caradoc Coun. Dave Cameron

“The emergency response to keep everyone informed as to which crossings were opened was so well put together this morning. It’s really caused less of an angry response than they might have gotten.”

— James Poag, downtown jeweller

“There’s a lot of walking traffic going by to look. That’s ... most of the commotion.”

— Stu Solomon, business owner

“We always train for the worst case ... so we were prepared in case we had to do any evacuation in the area. Thankfully, we didn’t have to.”

— Strathroy-Caradoc fire Chief Brian George

Compiled by ­Jonathan Juha, Postmedia News, and The Canadian Press

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