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MPs urged to tighten rail safety laws
Published: April 9, 2008
Source: David Akin, Canwest News Service
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OTTAWA - As a burning derailed train sent plumes of black smoke into the sky near Weyburn, Sask., union leaders sent MPs a warning that Canada's railways are getting more dangerous and called on Parliament to pass tougher rail safety laws.

"Because of the hiring practices, training practices, and lack of rail experience, our employees and our country are at risk," said Robert McDiarmid of the United Transportation Union, which represents 2,800 workers in Canada, mostly at the Canadian National Railway Co., of Montreal.

In Weyburn, where three trains collided on Monday, the preliminary conclusion of emergency responders was that operator error was the main contributing factor to the crash.

Union representatives also told MPs that decisions made at both CN and its chief national competitor, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., of Calgary, to run longer, heavier trains is hurting Canada's rail infrastructure and increasing safety risks.

In a presentation to the House of Commons committee studying proposed changes to rail safety rules, union leaders detailed seven derailments or accidents of CPR trains in just the last two weeks, including Monday's. Though no one was seriously injured, some nearby residents were forced to evacuate.

"We have seen too many of our fellow workers injured or killed," said William Brehl, president of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents about 4,000 workers at CPR who inspect, monitor and repair the track.

Brehl told MPs CPR had 21 per cent more derailments in 2007 than it did in 2006.

"They are putting production over safety and we, as Teamsters, are not going to stand for it," said Brehl.

An official at CPR said safety is the company's top priority.

"We are North America's safest railway. We have been in six of the last seven years," said spokesperson Mike LoVecchio. "We think there is another agenda at work here because the suggestions put forward at the committee are not supported by the facts."

At CN, spokesperson Bryan Tucker said: "CN has experienced a significant and consistent reduction in non-main track accidents over the past seven years, the type of incidents in which human actions play the greatest part in. Our injury rate has also decreased significantly over this period of time. Changing the culture is a work in progress but we are seeing results."

According to the Transportation Safety Board, there were 156 mainline derailments in 2007, compared to 141 in 2006. The five-year average for mainline derailments is 156.

Legislators began reviewing safety rules in 2006. Now, as they consider recommendations from a non-partisan panel, union leaders are warning that the new rules will let CN and CPR off the hook.

"We're concerned that they're giving more power or autonomy to the railways to make their own rules and will take the authority away from the regulatory body," said John Burns of the Canadian Auto Workers. "The (non-partisan) panel report concluded that rail continues to be one of the safest modes of transportation and that Canada's railways are among the safest in North America," said Bryan Tucker, a spokesperson for CN.

Union leaders said one of the big problems, particularly with CN, is a culture of "fear and discipline" in which employees fear they could lose their jobs or be punished in some other way if they blow the whistle on safety issues.

"CN views employees only as an asset similar to a locomotive or a boxcar," said Todd Cotie, a CN employee from Sudbury, Ont.

McDiarmid told MPs that railway companies ought to be forced to pay heavy fines for violating safety guidelines. He also believes federal legislation should be re-written so that senior officers of railway companies, in some cases, could be personally liable for safety violations.

Several union leaders complained that both CN and CPR, in their most recent contract negotiations, have tried to reduce the rest periods for all kinds of employees, from train engineers to yard maintenance staff. Union leaders say that results in increasing employee fatigue, heightening the risks of an accident.

 

 
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