Derailment shows need for more oversight: critics
Rescue crews work on a derailed VIA rail train in Burlington, Ontario on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. (Pawel Dwulit / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Monday, February 27, 2012 6:55PM EST
TORONTO - A train derailment that killed Via three crew members highlights the need for better funding and oversight of the railway industry, critics and experts said Monday.
"What will come out of this is that more money needs to be put into the infrastructure, into the rail and the rail maintenance, because there is no reason for a train to derail, except usually when it hits something solid," said Ray Marchand, general manager of the Canadian Safety Council.
"You might see collisions at the railway crossing, but you typically don't see (passenger train) derailments like this."
While Via Rail and passenger train derailments are rare, experts note that there are hundreds of non-fatal derailments each year.
Most of those involve freight trains on secondary lines, but public safety advocate Emile Therien said those shouldn't be discounted, as they point to what he calls a "brutal" safety record for trains in Canada.
There were more than 1,100 incidents in 2006, he said, 500 of which were derailments -- a particularly bad year.
"Safety is not a priority. You have track that's breaking, you have infrastructure that's not maintained," Therien said.
"Transport Canada has to get back in the business of doing safety audits. They did it from the time of Confederation to 1999, and they did a pretty good job."
That's the year amendments were made to the Railway Safety Act, distancing Transport Canada from its regulatory oversight role -- something Therien says led to a faulty system of the industry regulating itself.
"In the past, we've seen broken rails that caused major derailments," he said. "Very, very rarely is it the engineer."
It's only a matter of time, Therien added, before Canada experiences another rail disaster like the 1979 Mississauga, Ont., train derailment that saw a 106-car Canadian Pacific freight train go off the tracks.
In that accident, tank cars carrying propane exploded before mixing with chlorine from other cars and creating a raging fire. About 220,000 nearby residents were evacuated in a crash that caused major property and environmental damage.
Via has good safety record, Therien added, but "they're only as good as the track they ride on."
The tracks involved in the accident are leased to Via by CN, which said Monday its own internal investigation showed there were no indications that track conditions played any role in the tragedy.
"There are Transport Canada standards that have to be met in terms of the type of inspection and the frequency of inspection, and CN's policy is to meet and usually exceed all regulatory requirements," said CN spokesman Jim Feeny.
The track in question, he added, was last inspected on the morning of the derailment and no issues were found.
CN also does a number of other inspections, including walking tours of the tracks and sending down a car that does ultrasonic testing of the railing.
Operators invest more than a billion dollars in capital investments in their network, the Railway Association of Canada also noted, something that few industries have to do.
CN's capital investment program has earmarked more than $1 billion for track infrastructure for 2012, Feeny said, including replacement of rail ties and other track materials, as well as bridge improvements.
Investigators say it's too early to speculate about the cause of Sunday's crash in Burlington, Ont., and were poring over the train's black box to determine all possible factors.
Train 92 was travelling from Niagara Falls, Ont., when it left the tracks about 100 metres from where a freight train derailed some four years ago due to equipment failure. Forty-five passengers were injured.
The last time someone died aboard a Via Rail train was in 1999, when two engineers were killed after a train jumped the tracks and hit parked freight cars in Thamesville, Ont.
According to the Transportation Safety Board's latest statistics, there were 1,076 train accidents in 2010, with freight trains accounting for 69 per cent of the incidents.
Most of the accidents were minor and took place on secondary tracks, and while there were 81 rail fatalities, most involved people trespassing on the tracks.
Passenger railways registered 62 non-fatal train accidents in 2010.