Despite Lac-Mégantic tragedy, rail safety is improving

In light of that terrible tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que., Transport Canada will be taken to task in many quarters regarding its commitment to rail safety in this country. We all look forward to the Transportation Safety Board’s report into that awful train accident which took lives, injured others, caused extensive property damage and basically decimated a proud and vibrant community.

Between 2003 and 2007, the yearly average number of main-track derailments was 103. That did not include the number of non-main-track derailments, mainly in yards or terminals.

As regulator, Transport Canada, with overall responsibility for railway safety, conducts audits of how a railway company maintains its safety-management systems. It does not engage in the inspection of tracks and switches. The companies’ safety responsibilities include day-to-day safety and inspections.

Transport Canada and the industry are now approaching safety with encouraging and positive results. Since 2007, train accidents in this country have decreased by 23 per cent and passenger train accidents by 19 per cent. In addition, there were 16 main-track derailments for the first quarter of 2012, representing a significant decrease from the 2011 total of 38 and the total five-year average of 34. In addition, from January to March 2012, total accidents by million train miles are 11.33, down from 14.29 in 2011 and the five-year average of 14.3.

Why is this happening?

Transport Canada does indeed take rail safety very seriously and continues to take action to ensure that rail safety is a high priority. Just a few years ago, the government increased the Rail Safety Directorate’s financial resources by $72 million in order to enhance railway safety oversight, and an additional 25 inspectors were hired. Additional resources were also assigned to education and awareness such as the Operation Lifesaver Program, a joint program of the Canada Safety Council, the Railway Association of Canada and Transport Canada that educates Canadians about the hazards surrounding rail property and trains in an effort to prevent trespassing incidents that lead to death and serious injury.

Transport Canada also recently promoted amendments to the Railway Safety Act through Bill S-4, which received royal assent in May 2012. These amendments will strengthen Transport Canada’s oversight and enforcement powers to ensure compliance with all safety regulations by the railway companies. These important changes can only encourage rail companies to create, maintain, and enhance a culture of safety, which is happening.

One important category that has also shown significant improvement when it comes to rail freight is the discharge of dangerous goods. Statistics show an ongoing downward trend. The Lac-Mégantic incident aside, most leaks, fortunately, are small. The Canada Safety Council and others attribute this decrease in incidents involving dangerous goods to the proactive stance and leadership over the years by the Transportation Of Dangerous Goods (TDG) Secretariat, which falls under the auspices of the Minister of Transport. The TDG General Policy Advisory Council has played and continues to play a large role in this success. This council which meets twice a year brings together stakeholders (police, firefighters, industry, including rail, provincial governments, unions, safety interests and others) with different interests and agendas. But at the end of the day, through consensus and thoughtful discussion, decisions affecting the movement of dangerous goods are made in the best interests of public health and safety of all Canadians.

Rail safety in this country is improving. And that is great news. Let’s make sure we keep it on track.