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Federal rail safety report finds 'culture of fear'
Published: May 30, 2008
Source: Vancouver Sun
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A federal report critical of CN's 'culture of fear' stems from a series of incidents, including a toxic chemical spill and fish kill in the Cheakamus River.A "culture of fear" at Canadian National Railway is making it difficult for employees to report safety violations that raise the risk of derailments and other accidents, a federal parliamentary committee says in a new report to the House of Commons.

The standing committee on transport says both the federal government and railways bear responsibility for a failure to meet safety standards that were implemented in 2001, and a consequent rise in major accidents since that time.

The committee has "serious concerns" about a slow and inadequate effort by Transport Canada and the railways it governs to take a more proactive approach to safety - despite a seven-year opportunity to take action.

CP Rail fares somewhat better than CN in the report, although CP Rail gets only a bare passing grade, three out of five, compared to one out of five for rival CN when it comes to implementing safety management standards that were introduced in an update to the Railway Safety Act in 2001.

The committee reported hearing from railway workers who said it was difficult to create a "safety culture" and worried about reprisals and disciplinary action if they voiced concerns.

"This was especially true in the case of CN rail, where employees stated they were working within a 'culture of fear'," the report says.

"While CP Rail was viewed as having as somewhat better approach to safety management, there was still concern that its safety record could be improved. The fear of discipline for reporting safety violations was viewed by railway employees as a major deterrent to reporting such violations."

The committee report arises out of an October 2006 decision to inquire into rail safety after a series of major accidents and derailments, including a toxic chemical spill and subsequent fish kill in the Cheakamus River near Squamish, suggested an upward trend in main track accidents.

This is the second significant report on the subject in 2008.

Last March, after extensive consultations with stakeholders across Canada, an advisory panel to the Minister of Transport reported that the safety record of Canadian railways is among the best in North America - but had shown insufficient improvement since the Railway Safety Act update.

The report identifies fundamental institutional barriers to improved safety - including a hands-off approach by Transport Canada, and a lack of effort by railways to implement a culture of safety among employees.

In particular the committee found that safety management systems were getting little more than lip service from railways - and that Transport Canada was not successfully promoting those systems.

"We are of the opinion that, if more stringent oversight by Transport Canada had taken place, there might have been better results in implementing [safety management systems] and the railroads would have been further along in developing a safety culture than they are today," the standing committee reported.

"Transport Canada will have to take a much more 'hands-on approach' in this process if we are to see a favorable implementation of [safety management systems] in a timely manner. To be at the stage we are today, after seven years, is clearly not acceptable."

The committee called on Transport Canada to respond within one year with an "action plan" for toughening safety requirements, "including timelines for full implementation of the system."

It also called on the federal agency to develop a "rigorous" safety inspection program and to spend money hiring more people to carry out this work."


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