Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Watchdog fails on railway safety

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The investigation into the causes of the catastrophic derailment of a cargo train at Lac-Mégantic last year makes clear the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic company is to blame for the crash that killed 47 people in the picturesque Quebec village. Equally apparent, however, is that Transport Canada bears overall responsibility.

As regulator of the railways operating in Canada, the federal body's core duty is to protect Canadians, their property and the environment from the inherent hazards of the transportation of goods, often through densely populated urban centres. Yet, the Transportation Safety Board found that Transport Canada, decades after deregulation was implemented, does not have a sufficiently rigorous system of oversight to ensure railways are operating safely.

The analysis of what led to the crash -- the terrible evening the brakes failed and the train barrelled into the centre of town, derailing on a turn -- and the deficiencies at MM&A, provide an overview of how Transport Canada has failed in its duty. The deal in deregulation is that private industry is given the ability to design its own internal safety-management systems, and a federal watchdog will ensure those plans are adequate and followed strictly.

In sorting through the proverbial ashes of Lac-Mégantic, the board found that Transport Canada was neither watching closely, nor did it have big enough bite.

In 2001, the federal government implemented its regulation requiring firms to have internal safety-management systems. MM&A fulfilled its requirement in 2003. But, Transport Canada did not get around to auditing MM&A's plan until 2010, when it discovered the company had not implemented it.

Not surprisingly, Transport Canada's Quebec inspectors, in the interim, repeatedly found problems in MM&A's operations. Yet, there was little to no followup to ensure deficiencies were corrected.

The regional office felt there simply weren't enough inspectors to undertake audits to ensure railways, generally, followed the rules. The inspectors themselves didn't feel equipped to take part in such audits.

Further, while rail companies could be prosecuted for not complying with the regulations, they could not be penalized for deficiencies in implementing their safety-management system. Rather, deficiencies "would be presented to the company as an opportunity for improvement."

Transport Canada does not monitor its regional offices' inspections, audits, compliance or corrective efforts. So, it might tally accidents and near misses, but it can't track how well safety regulation is working, or assess the safety of the movement of goods and people by rail across Canada.

This, then, is not just a problem of one negligent company or the lax operations in a regional office of the federal oversight body. It is a national issue.

Transport Canada regulates 34 railways in Canada. Dozens more shortlines are regulated provincially. Oil, increasingly, is moved by rail across the country but the movement of hazardous goods, generally, through Canada's cities and towns presents a prevailing risk.

The safety board makes numerous recommendations from its investigation, including: the introduction of modern tank cars built to better resist puncture; improved route planning by railways for improved safety and accident response; better rules on operation and maintenance of equipment, particularly on the kinds of and number of brakes used to secure locomotives at rest.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has said only that her department is considering the advice. Ms. Raitt, however, misses the glaring conclusion of the board when she reduces the Lac-Mégantic tragedy as the result of a company that did not follow the rules. The board found Transport Canada hasn't done its job, and it needs stronger rules to ensure railways take safety seriously.

Ms. Raitt needs to order a national review of railway operation inspections to ensure negligence is not widespread, presenting similar risk to Canadians across the country.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2014 0

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