Ottawa crash renews focus on federal feud with rail sector and municipalities on safety rules

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Emergency workers take a person away on a stretcher at the scene of an accident involving a bus and a train in Ottawa September 18, 2013. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Federal efforts to pass new rail-crossing safety rules ran into objections from the rail sector, including Via Rail, and Canadian municipalities, in a standoff that will face greater scrutiny after a crash in Ottawa left six people dead.

The crash between a City of Ottawa bus and a Via Rail passenger train occurred at an at-grade crossing – a type of intersection that has long been the subject of debate as safety advocates argue the two forms of traffic should be separated by a bridge or underpass.

Story continues below ad

Level crossings are common in low-traffic, rural areas. But the crossing in the southern Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven has been the source of extensive local debate as the community has grown rapidly. Former Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli described the intersection as a “very, very severe public safety issue” in 2002. But Mr. Chiarelli, who is now Ontario’s Energy Minister, said Wednesday through his office that “there have been a lot of improvements” since he made those remarks.

The federal government proposed draft regulations in 2012 that would require rail companies to meet new sight-line requirements, upgrade existing crossings and reduce train speed, among other requirements aimed at improving safety.

“The regulations would reduce the risks at crossings and therefore is expected to save Canadian lives,” states a Transport Canada report, noting that a new focus on at-grade crossings was needed in light of the growing trend of urban sprawl.

But the federal government’s plan ran into resistance from the main groups responsible for maintaining at-grade rail crossings: the rail sector and municipalities.

In a letter to Transport Canada, Via Rail senior adviser Nicolas Panetta expressed concern with the cost of the changes, even though Via agreed it would improve safety.

“Generally, and of most concern to Via Rail, we agree that the proposed policy and associated standard will improve safety at both new crossings and existing crossings, we are concerned that Via will be burdened with the costs of upgrades on infrastructure that belongs to the freight railways,” wrote Mr. Panetta. Via Rail could not be reached for comment Wednesday on the regulations. The office of Tory MP Pierre Poilievre, whose riding includes the crash site, declined an interview.

Via Rail – a federal Crown corporation that relies on a mix of public and private funding – has been hit hard in recent rounds of federal spending cuts.

The City of Ottawa did not submit a comment on the regulations, but other cities, including Vancouver, expressed concern about the cost.

It is too soon to say whether the proposed federal regulations would have made any difference in Ottawa. The Transportation Safety Board – which is responsible for investigating the crash – says its work could take months.

The board has, however, been expressing strong concern about safety at Canada’s at-grade crossings and argues on its website that the new regulations are the solution. It says Canada has had 257 accidents involving passenger trains colliding with vehicles at level crossings over the past decade.

The City of Ottawa had considered, but ultimately abandoned, plans to replace the at-grade crossing with some form of overpass. A 2004 city report found “widespread opposition by the residents to any overpass alternative due to the adverse aesthetic impact on their properties and noise propagation.”

The city balked at the $111-million cost of separating the road and rail, opting instead for less expensive upgrades of the intersection.

Doug Lewis, who led a 2007 federal task force on rail safety, said the answer is for cities and developers to address the full cost of urban sprawl, including improved safety at rail crossings.

“The answer, I think, is to try to offset [the costs] ahead of time,” he said. “The houses are cheaper [in suburbs], because the land is cheaper because nobody has to say: ‘Oh, wait a minute, maybe we should put this road over the railway or under it.’ ”

With a report from Gloria Galloway

Topics: