The risk of passenger trains colliding with vehicles “remains too high in busy rail corridors,” according to the Transportation Safety Board, which has taken the lead in the investigation into a deadly crash between an Ottawa city bus and a Via Rail train.

As many as a dozen TSB investigators were on the scene by late afternoon Wednesday to determine what caused the crash that left at least six people dead and 30 injured.

In a briefing for reporters at the scene, TSB investigator Glen Pilon said safety at rail crossings has been on the TSB’s safety watch list, and so the investigation into Wednesday’s crash is “certainly going to be a priority for us.”

“It’s on our watch list and it’s the type of incident that we want to ensure…because of the chance for loss of life with VIA trains, those are one of those things we want to make sure don’t happen again,” Pilon said.

On its website, the TSB says it added the risk of passenger trains colliding with vehicles to its watch list in August 2010, saying that despite improved safety measures at rail crossings -- including better warning devices -- collisions continue to occur.

The agency says despite efforts by both Transport Canada and the railway companies to improve safety, there are still measures that should be implemented.

“Transport Canada must implement new grade crossing regulations, develop enhanced standards or guidelines for certain types of crossing signs, and continue its leadership role in crossing safety assessments,” the agency says on its website. “A comprehensive solution must also include further improving public awareness of the dangers at railway crossings.”

There were 2,162 crossing accidents on Canada's railways between 2003 and 2012, the TSB says, which left 266 people dead and caused some 346 serious injuries.

Since it highlighted its concerns about rail crossings in 2010, the TSB says Transport Canada has made a number of improvements to rail crossing safety along the corridor, including:

  • developing a program to install warning systems, with gates, at all crossings where trains are allowed to travel faster than 128 km/h.
  • making a commitment to perform safety assessments.
  • supporting programs to educate members of the public about rail safety.

The TSB said CN upgraded the warning systems on 31 public and 24 private crossings along the corridor, and closed nearly two-dozen crossings.

NDP MP Olivia Chow, who sits on the Commons Transport Committee, said “there’s nothing stopping” MPs from looking at rail safety when the House resumes sitting on Oct. 16.

Chow told CTV’s Power Play that whether or not the TSB’s outstanding recommendations would have made a difference in Wednesday’s crash, MPs can still look at what, if anything, can be done to improve overall rail safety.

Rail crossing guidelines

While the cause of Wednesday’s crash has yet to be determined, witnesses reported that the gates were down and the signal lights were flashing at the rail crossing as the double-decker OC Transpo bus approached shortly before 9 a.m. Despite bus passengers’ screams to stop, the bus plowed through the crossing and was hit by the train, which was on its way to Toronto.

CTV’s Richard Madan tweeted Wednesday afternoon that: “Investigators just tested if crossing gates work. They all did except the one destroyed in #OttawaCrash.”

The TSB says that one-third of public crossings across the country have gates and/or flashing lights and bells.

Peter Miasek, president of Transport Action Ontario, said that as rail and automobile traffic in Canada increase, rail-crossing safety must be carefully considered.

“As train traffic and automobile traffic goes up, there should be more (level crossings),” Miasek told CTV News Channel Wednesday afternoon.

“The first level of protection indeed is to make sure that all significantly travelled crossings have the gates, barriers and lights.”

Miasek said that the general rule for determining whether a level crossing with barriers and lights is established is whether the number of trains that pass through times the number of cars equals 200,000.

Once that threshold is passed, he said, grade separation must be considered. In other words, an overpass or underpass to keep the train and automobile traffic from crossing paths altogether.

“When train or auto traffic goes up, it definitely needs to be looked at because one of these incidents with fatalities shuts the whole system down for a long period of time and causes major disruptions,” Miasek said.

“The other advantage of a grade separation of course is the reduced impact on automobile traffic. If you have a train going through every half hour and it takes a couple of minutes, then you’re going to get a lot of traffic back-up.”

Miasek said a study conducted by his agency estimated the cost of one grade crossing to be between $20 million and $30 million, which he acknowledged may impede their construction.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that more than 10 years ago, the city had been considering constructing an underpass at the rail crossing where Wednesday’s accident occurred. However, when a cost estimate of an underpass there and at a nearby crossing came in at $111 million, the plan was abandoned in favour of signals.

Unifor, the union that represents 2,100 Via Rail workers, said Wednesday’s accident highlights the need to move away from level crossings.

“Level crossings, particularly in busy areas, take a needless toll – including injury and the loss of life,” the union said in a statement. “We strongly recommend changes to the use of level crossings, combined with other necessary safety improvements.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told CTV’s Power Play Wednesday evening that the city’s chief of police indicated there hadn’t been any reports of accidents at the crossing since the force began keeping records in 2002.

Rob Johnston of the TSB told Power Play that the crossing where Wednesday’s accident occurred “is complex.”

“It has highway traffic adjacent to a transitway so it’s a larger crossing,” Johnston said. “But it has, as far as automated protection goes, the highest level of automated protection for a level grade crossing that is available. The only thing that could be done differently would be a grade separation.”

Event recorders

The TSB’s Pilon also told reporters Wednesday that the priority for his investigators is to locate the “event recorders” from both the bus and the train to determine factors such as the speed each was travelling at when they collided.

However, one of the concerns the agency added to its watch list about rail safety is that on-board video and voice recorders are not required on locomotives.

“Video and voice recordings would allow the Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators to confirm the nature of crew communications and the dynamics of crew actions and interactions,” the agency said. “Moreover, such information would allow accident investigators to eliminate extraneous factors that did not play a role in the accident.”

The agency noted that some railway companies have installed forward-facing video recorders on trains.

“But progress toward broader use of voice and video recorders in locomotive cabs has not been made.”

Watson said existing Ottawa city buses do not have cameras, however new buses that the service is introducing do have them on board.