The sorry state of railway safety in Canada
Published: October 28, 2007
Source: Emile Therien - Toronto Star
Thursday's report by the Transportation
Safety Board on the derailment of a CN Railway train that dumped 700,000
litres of fuel oil and chemicals into an Alberta lake two years ago is a
reminder that, as Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon told the House of
Commons in April, "rail safety in this country has gone down the tube."
The board reported that the Aug. 3, 2005, derailment was caused by a
broken rail, and that management of the spill would have been more
efficient if CN had better co-ordinated its emergency response plan. It
reiterated a recommendation – first made in 1993 – that systems to
detect rail flaws be improved.
Cannon, concerned with the state of railway safety, had initiated a full
review of the Railway Safety Act in December 2006. An advisory panel is
expected to report back on its findings this fall. Unfortunately, no one
representing the railway unions is a panel member.
According to the TSB, rail accident rates declined steadily from about
1,300 in 1996 to 985 in 2002. Since 2002 the trend has risen, and in
2006 there were 1,142 accidents. Derailments account for more than half
of all reported accidents. For the past two years, accidents have been
above the five-year average.
Nine major rail accidents were documented from April 12, 2001, to Jan.
7, 2007. Subsequently, this year to Sept. 13, there have been at least
11 major incidents, most involving derailments. That's more than in the
previous six years.
Also in August 2005, a CN train derailed near Squamish, B.C., causing
extensive environmental damage. A TSB investigation released in July
this year found the locomotives were not properly configured and the
crew was not properly trained. After taking over the B.C. rail line, CN
introduced long trains but did not draw upon the local expertise
required to operate them safely in the mountains.
The Squamish and Alberta derailments were just two of four similar
incidents between August and December 2005. One would expect even a
single incident to trigger the company to take preventive action. One
would most certainly expect the regulator, Transport Canada, to ensure
such action had been taken. However, on June 29, 2006, yet another CN
train derailed near Lillooet, B.C., and two crew members were killed.
On Aug. 3 this year, five charges were laid against CN in conjunction
with the Squamish derailment. If convicted, CN could pay up to $5
million in fines. That day, a CN spokesperson said CN had implemented a
safety action plan, and the railway always has insisted it is doing its
best to assure safety. The very next day, two CN trains collided in
Prince George, B.C.
It is surprising how little media coverage this last incident received.
There was practically none outside of British Columbia. On June 15 of
this year there was a derailment at Nakina, Ont., that was not even
covered by the media. Apparently such incidents have become so common
they are no longer newsworthy.
Amendments to the Railway Safety Act in 1999 gave railway companies the
authority to implement Safety Management Systems (SMS) to integrate
safety into day-to-day operations. SMS entailed a reduction in
regulatory oversight; Transport Canada largely gave up its regulatory
Since its introduction, SMS has been controversial. It has often led to
conflict between the management and employees of railroad companies.
Proponents claim SMS has not fundamentally changed the way railroads
operate but has enhanced both safety and the culture of safety in the
industry. Opponents of SMS claim otherwise.
Workers fear that letting the companies oversee government safety
regulations is a conflict of interest. There are now far fewer Transport
Canada inspectors. Spot audits, historically regarded as critical safety
checks, have come to an end.
Workers are also concerned that SMS gives management the responsibility
to evaluate and manage risks based on a risk threshold set by the
industry, which may not be as demanding as one set by Transport Canada.
The concern has been expressed that SMS allows rail companies to
regulate themselves, removing the federal government's ability to
protect Canadians and their environment.
Canadians expect their government to take responsibility for railway
safety. They assume safety is in the hands of an independent regulator
making decisions in the public interest – not a self-interested industry
whose decisions may dilute safety with profit motivation.
Canadians would be shocked to learn the degree to which the government
has reneged on its responsibility for railway safety. Ottawa must
reinstate the authority of Transport Canada, and provide the necessary
financial resources to ensure effective regulatory oversight.
The Walkerton water tragedy and the ongoing debacle of dangerous goods
being imported from China are clear reminders of the importance of
Emile Therien is former president of the Canada Safety Council.