Editorial — Indictment of Transport Canada and rail safety demands change

The final report of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) into the Lac-Megantic rail tragedy, which killed 47 residents of the quiet Quebec town last July, is a damning indictment of both Transport Canada and the poorly-run Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway. Together, their indifferent attitude towards safety led to what the TSB report describes as 18 “factors” which came together to create the horrific tragedy.

While the most egregious inattention to safety rules and practices was on the part of the company, which seemed interested only in profits and had little commitment to the communities which its rail line traversed, the federal agency was deficient in a number of key areas.

One is that it did not follow through on many occasions, after inspectors had cited MMA for various safety issues. Another is that it did far too much checking for “compliance” verbally, instead of in person. A third is that the government department has left far too much of the responsibility for compliance with safety rules solely up to the railways. Thus how they are managed is a key factor in how safe they are. Transport Canada is a mere onlooker.

Transport Canada was cited by the Auditor General in November, 2013 (after the tragedy) for not having a proper audit approach to ensure that railways were managing safety risks and complying with safety requirements.

If railways were operating in a vacuum and not interacting with citizens, municipalities and vehicles every minute of every day across Canada, leaving all responsibility for safety up to the railways might be justified.

Here in Langley, it is easy to see how much of an impact railways have on everyday life.

When longer and longer trains block crossings for three to five minutes each time they pass; when lengthy coal trains can begin detouring over a seldom-used rail line with minimal notice; and when the various levels of government, the port and the railways combine to spend more than $300 million on a series of overpasses, it is obvious that railways in this community have a huge impact on citizens.

If they operate safely, that impact may be annoying, but it won’t be devastating. That was not the case in Lac-Megantic.

MMA made it clear, by operating one-man trains loaded with a highly-flammable type of crude oil, and then leaving such trains parked on its main line on a steep grade above Lac-Megantic, that it did not care. The train at the centre of the tragedy was improperly secured, with not nearly enough hand brakes to hold it, and there was no derail device on the tracks that could have stopped it before it built up any speed. An engine fire, which caused the air brakes of the locomotive of the parked train to shut down, didn’t even draw any follow-up from MMA.

MMA’s response to the disaster was to go bankrupt and thus be absolved of any liability for the tragedy. The federal government has yet to do anything of substance to make its former owners take even a small bit of responsibility for their company’s actions. Instead, Canadian, Quebec and Lac-Megantic taxpayers are paying the costs.

Transport Canada has brought in numerous regulatory changes since the crash. One of the most important is a phase-out of the DOT 111-type tank cars that split open and spilled their contents in Lac-Megantic, creating the fireball that killed so many.

However, it needs to change its culture and become much more hands-on in regulating railways. It’s a similar theme to what is being said about the Mount Polley tailings pond spill — where are the inspectors, and how often is there actual enforcement of safety regulations on-site?

To their credit, the railways in Langley have a good safety record and all three of them — Canadian Pacific, Canadian National and Southern Railway of B.C. — have a strong emphasis on safety. They need to take a stronger role in demonstrating that to the community, in particular local governments and first responders, but also citizens at large. Rail transport is a vital and important part of economic activity, but it must be conducted with a “Safety First” attitude at all times.

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