Transport Canada urged to ramp up railway oversight
Published Thursday, March 1, 2012 6:54AM EST
A person working at the VIA Rail derailment site walks past a passenger car off the tracks in Burlington, Ontario on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. (Pawel Dwulit / THE CANADIAN PRES)
Perturbed by a deadly derailment in southwestern Ontario, longtime railway safety critic Emile Therien is calling on the federal government to step up its on-the-track oversight.
The former Canada Safety Council president asserts that Ottawa has relinquished its regulatory control to individual companies, making it more perilous to ride the rails.
"Transport Canada is no longer in the game of being a regulator," said Therien, charging that the agency effectively forfeited responsibility when the Railway Safety Act was amended 13 years ago, leaving rail companies to monitor themselves.
His words come after a Via Rail passenger train careened off the rails while approaching a switch point in Burlington, Ont. The first of the train's six cars flipped onto its side and struck a building, leaving the rest of the locomotive zigzagged across the tracks.
Two veteran engineers and a trainee were killed in the derailment, the cause of which is not yet known. Forty-six others were hurt, some suffering serious injuries.
Investigators have yet to determine what caused the derailment, an uncommon incident for passenger trains in Canada. Figures from the Transportation Safety Board show there were 1,076 train accidents in 2010, most of which involved freight trains.
Therien concedes that what happened on Feb. 26 is rare for Via Rail but says the incident highlights a systemic problem with the way Canada's railroads are monitored.
In 2001, Transport Canada began to implement Railway Safety Management Systems (SMS) regulations, an arrangement requiring rail employees to assess safety risks daily. According to the agency, the objective is to reduce deaths, injuries and infrastructure damage by creating an environment where safety is everyone's responsibility.
The rationale is that a railway employee may be able to spot a hazardous situation faster than federal inspectors, who aren't on site on a daily basis. Employees are tasked with reporting concerns, which then move up the ranks based on severity.
For its part, Transport Canada has tried to clarify that the self-policing system doesn't absolve the agency of all responsibility. According to the organization, safety audits and infrastructure inspections still occur.
"SMS is not self-regulation, and the Railway SMS Regulations do not replace any regulations, rules or standards," reads a statement on the agency's website.
The Railway Association of Canada has long defended the SMS monitoring system as a method that has made the nation's tracks safer. Via Rail, CN and Canadian Pacific are among the advocacy group's 50 some-odd members.
Conflict of interest or an efficient system?
But in Therien's eyes, the SMS guidelines have enabled Transport Canada to offload regulatory obligations onto railway companies, which he says poses a problem.
"I think it's a serious conflict of interest and a lot of people who work for the railroads have accused them of that," he said. "It essentially gives management a responsibility to monitor and manage risks."
When it ran off the rails, commuter train 92 was travelling on tracks owned by Canadian National Railway. Earlier this week, CN said the tracks had been inspected on the morning of the derailment and no issues were discovered.
Therien asserts that federal inspectors should be the ones combing the tracks regularly for problems. He argues that the agency's standards may be more rigorous.
"The risk threshold set by (companies) may not always be as demanding as the one set by Transport Canada," he said in a phone interview from Ottawa.
Company employees, however, are tasked with carrying out standards established by Transport Canada in the Railway Safety Act. The SMS guidelines also require companies to submit "documented systems and procedures" to Transport Canada so the agency can monitor performance and progress.
Still, Therien said he'd prefer to see Transport Canada reassume some of the duties it had before SMS came into place. That means more inspectors and regular spot audits.
"They've got to get back in the regulatory game," he said. "We're not asking for the world here, we're asking for common sense."
According to the TSB, Canada saw 81 rail fatalities in 2010. However, most of those involved people trespassing on tracks and not faulty infrastructure.
The last Canadian passenger train derailment in recent memory happened near Quebec City in 2010 when a train travelling to Halifax from Montreal jumped the tracks and struck a house. Seven people were injured in the incident.
Raynald Marchand, current general manager of the Canada Safety Council, said he believes that the SMS guidelines have made it safer to ride the rails.
"Before, the employee didn't report a problem even though the employee knew," he said. "It was up to the inspector to figure it out if he went by and noticed it."
According to Marchand, more potential safety hazards have been reported and documented since the SMS regulations came into force. For him, it's a positive development that he doesn't want to see reversed.
"There is a responsibility on the employee to report and then it moves up the line. That has to be in place," he said.
In terms of what can be done to further railway safety in Canada, Marchand suggests companies continue to invest money in improving infrastructure. He said this is particularly important for lines that are frequented often by freight trains, which are heavier than commuter locomotives and tend to damage the tracks quicker.
Meanwhile, an investigation is underway into what happened to train 92 in Burlington. Via Rail is working with the Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada to determine what went wrong.