Canadian rail safety at risk

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It seems the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) aren't the only ones nagging the federal government to get with the rail safety program. The NDP have a few things to say as well. They want concrete measures to be implemented to improve rail safety in Canada and say the Harper government's unwillingness to comply with TSB recommendations continues to put Canadian travellers and railway employees at risk.

Olivia Chow (MP Trinity-Spadina) is the Transport Critic for the Official Opposition. "(The) statement from the TSB shows that the Conservatives are on the wrong track," says Chow. "The independent agency's calls for automatic safety measures have been ignored since 2001. First by the Liberals and now the Conservatives."

This week the TSB released a report on a derailment in Quebec that looks frighteningly familiar. In February 2010, VIA train No. 15 entered a siding located in a subdivision of Saint-Charles-de-Bellechasse, Quebec, at approximately 64 mph. It derailed. Two locomotives and a half dozen passenger cars went flying off the tracks, resulting in the injury of two Via employees and five passengers. About 3,000 litres of diesel fuel leaked and a house and six cars were destroyed.

Fortunately, unlike the derailment outside Burlington just over a week ago, no one was killed.

The fatal Burlington crash has renewed calls for locomotive cab voice recorders and the implementation of something called Positive Train Control. PTC systems force trains to slow automatically when required, resulting in fewer derailments. Positive Train Control was made mandatory by the U.S. Congress in 2008, and many rail companies throughout the world have similar systems in place.

The TSB has been calling for voice recorders in cabs since 2003. The 2010 Quebec crash was determined to have resulted from snow blocking the signals and poor visibility due to weather conditions. In the case of the recent Burlington derailment, none of the crew in the cab survived, so we'll never know exactly what those men saw -- or didn't see -- and we'll never know what was communicated among them in the minutes and seconds leading up to the crash. A cab voice recorder would have, at least, provided the TSB with another tool for investigation, a tool that would help them prevent future crashes. Positive Train Control, says Chow, would have prevented the accident altogether.

Unfortunately, the Harper majority government is planning to cut $200 million from Via's budget, a move which many feel will hamper Via's ability to improve its safety systems. Despite rail being a highly profitable business, the companies who own the track -- CN and CPR -- have no incentive to part with the money to install a PTC system because there is no government legislation forcing them to do so.

According to a Transport Canada spokesperson, "The Government of Canada takes the safety of the rail system very seriously and is committed to maintaining and improving appropriate levels of safety. Since 2008, our government has taken action to improve rail safety through improvement of programs and increased funding." Transport Canada points out that there is already a Safety Management System (SMS) in place that has been effective in reducing train derailments.

According to Chow, that simply isn't the case. "The SMS would work perfectly, if it were properly implemented," she says. "There aren't enough inspectors and there is inadequate staff training on the system. The Transportation Safety Board has noted that the implementation of the SMS is not done in a way that is acceptable. If you rely on the company to follow a system that isn't checked to see if it's working, then the SMS fails. That's why inspectors are so important."

Bill Brehl, President of TCRC-MWED -- the union that represents rail maintenance workers -- agrees. "Are the Conservatives doing enough? Not nearly enough. Did the Liberals do enough? They did even less than the Conservatives. The Liberals deregulated safety. They took all the track inspectors and put them in offices, poring over audits being supplied by the railways, and that doesn't work. You don't put the fox in charge of the henhouse."

The Rail Safety Act -- last reviewed in 2007 -- needs revision, according to Brehl. It also needs proper oversight. Minister of Transport Denis Lebel has "tasked the Advisory Council on Rail Safety, on an urgent basis, to look again into the matter of installing voice recorders in locomotive cabs." Too late for the three Via engineers, but hopefully enough change will be legislated and new technologies adopted to protect the lives of all rail workers, passengers and the general public.

"We lost three of our brothers," says Bill Brehl. "If you're a railroader it doesn't matter if your hands are on the throttle or on a spike maul, when we lose people it hurts. We're a tightly knit family."

Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble,'s online forum.

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