The Conservative government is taking a wait-and-see approach to calls for more railway safety measures despite strong recommendations by investigators of a 2012 derailment that killed three engineers and injured dozens of passengers.
In their findings released Tuesday, the investigators at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that a Via Rail train derailed near Burlington, Ont., in February of last year because the locomotive crew failed to obey a series of track-side signals and the train switched tracks more than four times above the maximum speed.
According to the safety board, incidents in which crews disobey signals occur once a month on Canada’s railways. To address this, the board emphasized three recommendations at a news conference in Burlington.
Board representatives said that, first, Canadian railways need the kind of automatic braking systems other countries, including the United States, use to slow trains if the operators fail to heed signals. They also called for audio and video recorders in locomotive cabins for investigators to examine after accidents, and for older locomotives to be refitted to better withstand crashes.
Transport Minister Denis Lebel said last Friday that, on the advice of a committee studying the issue, his department recommends that freight and passenger services install video and audio recorders in their locomotives. But this is a recommendation, not a safety rule. Via is already installing audio recorders.
The rail industry supports the idea, but the companies want access to the recordings if they are going to pay for the installation. Unions and the safety board worry that the equipment could be used to monitor and discipline employees. According to the safety board’s protocol, such data are for investigative purposes only.
“It’s very, very clear … that recorders cannot be used for discipline,” said Wendy Tadros, chair of the safety board.
As for fail-safe breaking systems, the Transportation Minister said in a statement on Tuesday that “we are closely monitoring the implementation of positive train control in the United States.” U.S. railways are legally required to have the collision-avoidance systems, although implementation is not expected to meet the 2015 deadline.
The Canadian rail industry argues that Canada already has one of the best safety records in the world and that the current signalling system works effectively.
“That system does work. It does breakdown obviously. It can from time to time when the rules aren’t followed. But it does work,” said Michael Bourque, who heads the Railway Association of Canada, which represents the rail industry.
The safety board said this is not enough. “In robust safety systems, you’re supposed to have multiple lines of defences. The signal system is the first line of defence,” Ms. Tadros said.
“What we’re saying is that there needs to be another defence in there, and it needs to be something beyond rules and procedures. We need something physical, an automatic fail-safe way of bringing that train to a stop,” she said, arguing that the rail industry is trying to maintain the “status quo.”
“We need to fix this or it is going to happen again,” she added.
Canadian National Railway Co. owns and maintains the track on which the derailment occurred. Spokesman Mark Hallman said in an e-mail that, although the company’s “focus on safety is unwavering,” further deployment of the fail-safe technology beyond what has been mandated in the United States “should not be pursued until we can fully validate the reliability and operability of the system.”
He added that installing the safety system along thousands of kilometres of its U.S. tracks is “a significant capital cost and ongoing operating expense.”
Ms. Tadros said Transport Canada needs to do more than issue recommendations. “I think stronger leadership is required.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said the VIA train that derailed in 2012 switched tracks four times at the maximum speed. The train switched tracks going more four times the maximum speed. This version has been corrected.