Politicians must step up and make rail safety a top priority

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Photo: flickr / mcwetboy

Transport Canada's emergency safety directive issued following the Lac-Mégantic rail tragedy is welcome but more can be done.

For almost a decade we've been campaigning for better rail safety in Canada and the Harper government, to its credit (and that’s not easy for a union person like me to say), has returned some of the independent policing powers to Transport Canada after too much deregulation was granted by previous governments.

Still, the calamity of Lac-Mégantic occurred.

Obviously, more must be done to ensure safety, especially when tens of millions of Canadians live near main rail lines.

Transport Canada's emergency directive is meant as a temporary fix while Ottawa drafts and passes into law new safety regulations.

The Transport Canada directive calls for limitations on leaving trains unattended and locomotives unlocked, minimum two-person crews when transporting dangerous materials, and clear direction on applying handbrakes to unattended locomotives with one or more cars attached.

As I said, it is a good start, but as someone who spent 20 years working on the track and the last 15 years representing 4,000 men and women who repair and maintain the track, there are three things that the temporary directive overlooked that I believe must be included in legislation.

Away from rail yards, no train should be left unattended for one minute, let alone one hour or more. Although the exact causes of Lac-Mégantic are still under investigation, the tragedy has already taught us this: Deadly and surprising things can happen when a locomotive is running and no one is around. Ending the practice of unattended locomotives will require better staff scheduling by managers.

Safety plans must be more transparent. Currently, federally regulated railways must file Safety Management Systems, or SMS, with Transport Canada. The SMS is intended to be a formal plan to build a culture of safety across the organization. SMS are not intended to be self-regulation, but in the everyday world, they are because a railway’s compliance is restricted to its own filings and infrequent surprise inspections from Transport Canada.

More Transport Canada safety inspectors are needed. Something is amiss when for every one Transport Canada rail inspector there are eight or nine air inspectors. Granted, when there is an air accident, it is usually a catastrophe with loss of life, but, as we’ve so tragically learned, calamity lurks on rail lines, too. The gap between the number of rail and air inspectors must be tightened.

Over the last 15 years or so, train derailments and accidents have been on the rise in Canada. In fact, there have been more than 10,000 of these incidents since 1999, according to transportation safety board statistics. Most are minor; some are major that force residential evacuations and some are catastrophic like Lac-Mégantic.

We cannot turn back the clock and bring back those innocent people in Lac-Mégantic. But we can look forward and create an environment of safety first.

Rail safety is something that must be maintained year in and year out, day in and day out. Wear and tear continually work its way on track and equipment. Short cuts to safety procedures must be avoided. Complacency as time passes since Lac-Mégantic must not occur.

Cynics might suggest that our decade-long safety campaign has to do with maintaining union jobs. But rail safety is not about jobs. It is about lives.

Millions of Canadians live close to rail lines and hundreds of millions of tonnes of dangerous commodities are shipped by rail through crowded urban areas every year. Our economy depends on rail traffic and our lives depend on it moving safely.

It is now time for every Member of Parliament, everywhere in Canada, regardless of party affiliation, to step up and do what is necessary to ensure that safety is given top priority. MPs need to look to their own constituencies, be aware of the possible dangers, and earn the trust their constituents have placed in them.

This fall when the House of Commons transport committee begins hearings it will be an important step toward ensuring no more tragedies like Lac-Mégantic happen again.


William Brehl is president of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference’s Maintenance of Way Employees Division, based in Ottawa, and a member of Transport Canada’s Advisory Council on Railway Safety.

Photo: flickr / mcwetboy 

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