Concerns about rail safety in Canada have been raised following the unfortunate Via Rail accident on Feb. 26. While a loss of life justifies a thorough investigation and review, the rarity of these events speaks more to the enviable safety record of the rail industry in Canada than to any chronic problems.
Public concern about rail safety is easy to stir because so few people have any connection to this mode of transport. During the heyday of rail transport, everyone in Winnipeg had either a relative, or a friend, that worked for the railway. Today, railway operations are a mystery to most people. Consequently, it is easier to raise alarms amongst a populace that is unfamiliar with the safety record or accident statistics of the rail industry.
It is alleged rail safety declined following the change in government oversight that accompanied the introduction of the Safety Management System (SMS) in 2001. The data does not support this contention.
The Railway Association of Canada reports the accident rate of the freight railways has fallen to 2.6 per billion gross ton-miles in 2010 from 4.3 per billion gross ton-miles in 2002. This is a 39.5 per cent drop. Passenger trains experienced a 36.6 per cent drop in accidents per million riders between 2005 and 2010.
Self-regulation under SMS is designed to create a proactive safety environment in which the railways can identify hazards and take steps to mitigate the risks. SMS does not encourage the railways to cut corners on safety. The economic incentives for safe operations are properly aligned because the railways are self-insured and subject to continued oversight. The costs of derailments, with the possible loss of cargo and cleanup of any environment contamination, find their way directly to the bottom line of the railway company. Accidents are reviewed independently by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), as is happening in the case of the Via Rail incident.
The Canadian railways are consistently rated as the safest in North America. Their focus on safety can be explained by corporate culture and economics. Many accidents can be expected in the developmental stages of any new technology, and the railways are a prime example. Between 1850 and 1870, trains became faster, longer and more powerful as a result of better rails and telegraph-signalling systems. Crewmen would jump from car to car to manually apply the brakes; something unimaginable today. Prior to the invention of the air brake in 1872, railway accidents were very common.
The railways worked together to develop fail-safe systems. The term fail-safe refers to how a situation will resolve if a mechanical or other failure occurs.
For example, if pressure is lost on air brakes, they lock so the train cannot move. If a signal fails, the default position is "danger." Train crews are instructed to treat any contradictory or unclear signal as "danger." Over the past 150 years, the railways developed a culture that emphasizes safety in all their operations.
The desire to operate safely is one thing; the ability to operate without any accidents is another. The railways have extensive networks to maintain.
As an example, CN Rail operates 32,831 kilometres of track coast to coast in Canada and in 14 U.S. states.
CN's capital budget for 2012 is $1.75 billion. Of this amount, more than $1 billion is earmarked for the replacement of rails, ties, other track materials and bridge improvements that are required to maintain safe operations.
Despite the financial commitment and managerial effort expended on safety, the railways can never hope to eliminate all accidents. The statistics show, however, the problems are often lying outside the control of the railways. The two principal sources of fatalities involving the railways occur at level crossings and as a result of trespassing. Based on the average of 2003-2007 TSB statistics, the railways averaged 92 fatalities per year.
Of this total, 29 occurred at level crossings and 58 were the result of trespassing. All other rail-related fatalities were limited to five per year.
Derailments are the most common accidents reported by the railways. About 60 per cent of these incidents occur in non-main-track locations and involve only a few cars. Although inconvenient and costly to deal with, these derailments are unlikely to put the general public or railway workers in danger.
The Via Rail accident reminds us that the physics of railway deserves respect. Thousands of tons of steel hurtling along on steel rails cannot and will not stop quickly. If a train leaves the track at high speed, injury can quickly result. Fortunately, such incidents are rare in Canada. What remain too common are collisions at level crossings. In this case, the safety message needs to be directed to car and truck drivers.
Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.