The faces looking out from the photographs are so full of life. Smiling faces of so many young people in their prime. These are the young people who perished during a summer's night get-together at a local pub in beautiful, tranquil Lac-Mégantic. Their lives and the town were shattered when a runaway train with dangerous cargo went off the rails and exploded in their midst.
Those young people could be our daughters and sons, our sisters and brothers. The depths of this tragedy are hard to fathom until you see the photos and the messages, written on heart-shaped paper, one after another, one smile after another, in St. Agnes church, where all those who perished are being honoured. For the families, all that remains are memories. And, for the rest of us, questions. These are questions we all must face, as a society, to ensure that we protect all our communities from such tragedy in the future.
Why has the federal government ignored rail safety recommendations from the Transportation Safety Board and auditor general for several years? Why were only some of those recommendations addressed in Transport Canada's announcement this week of six emergency regulations to help prevent future derailments? Why did it take such a horrendously tragic incident and three weeks of relentless pressure from the New Democrats before the government finally took actions that were long overdue?
Why was the MM&A Railway Inc. allowed by Transport Canada to go from two operators to one on a train carrying dangerous goods? Why has Transport Canada not admitted the obvious -- that it is unsafe to operate trains with dangerous cargo with only one worker. What about an apology for making a poor decision that jeopardized safety?
Did the government audit MM&A's safety management system? Did it approve of MM&A's practice of using an alternate siding as a parking lot for unused cars, thus forcing rail cars containing dangerous cargo to be parked unattended on the main track?
How is it possible that the government has no clear rules on how many hand brakes should be applied, and how does it justify leaving these important standards in the hands of the industry, rather than governed by a public body?
How can the government continue to ignore the recommendations from its own watchdog, the Transportation Safety Board, such as mandatory installation of automatic braking systems, and voice and video recorders in the locomotive cabs?
We need to find answers to these questions. And we need to act.
Since the start of the mantra that "government must get out of the way of business," we've had bad water in Walkerton, tainted meat and now, the unspeakably tragic rail derailment with the loss of so many young lives. When it comes to safety measures, deregulation is a failed experiment. All Canadians deserve better.
Here is the ultimate question: isn't it time to take charge and declare that it is the duty and responsibility of our government to protect us through strong, fully enforced regulations, ensuring safety measures that are second to none? Nothing can ever bring back the lives that were lost. Let us now think of all the lives that could be saved.
Olivia Chow is the Official Opposition critic on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. She visited Lac-Mégantic on Thursday.
This article was originally published by the Toronto Star and is reprinted here with permission.
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