The government's plans to address rail safety in the upcoming federal budget are coming under heightened scrutiny amid new revelations about the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people in 2013, but could have been prevented by a simple 10-second safety procedure.
The Liberal government said after last fall's federal election that it plans to bolster rail safety in response to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, in which a train loaded with highly volatile crude oil was left unattended and rolled down a hill into the Quebec town, where it exploded, killing dozens of people instantly.
What prominence rail safety will get in the March 22 budget is uncertain. An internal communiqué sent to Transport Canada staff on Friday and obtained by The Globe and Mail indicates the department is bracing for cuts. The memo, titled Budget Planning for Next Fiscal Year, informs staff that "the budget situation is going to continue to be difficult for the year ahead," and recommends employees find ways to "work differently and better together."
Within Transport Canada, a new board has been established "to review all staffing actions, and ensure they remain within the department's salary envelope," according to the memo, signed by deputy Minister of Transport Jean-François Tremblay.
Staffing levels at the department were called into question after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, when a report by the Auditor-General of Canada raised alarms about Transport Canada's ability to enforce its own safety rules. Among the key concerns was a shortage of safety inspectors and auditors to catch rule violations by railways, and to ensure those companies were adhering to safety standards.
The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that new information provided by an expert source inside the rail industry reveals the Lac-Mégantic disaster could have been prevented had the train operator used a 10-second safety procedure the night of the crash.
Turning a lever inside the cab and activating the automatic air brakes on the train's more than 70 rail cars, coupled with the minimal number of handbrakes set that night, would have been enough to hold the train in place for at least a day, if not considerably longer.
The train began to roll down a hill after the locomotive was shut off that night by fire crews extinguishing a blaze. Turning the engine off caused the air brakes on the locomotive to lose air, rendering them ineffective. The engineer set seven handbrakes, devices that are set by hand on a rail car, but they were not enough to hold the train. The automatic air brakes on the rail cars, which were not activated, are separate from the other brakes, taking much longer to lose air, and would have been a sufficient back-up to the hand brakes.
The expert, who requested anonymity because he is employed in the sector, said the Lac-Mégantic train, with more than 70 rail cars, would have stayed in place until morning – and probably much longer – before some of the automatic brakes would release. In conjunction with the small number of handbrakes set, the two safety steps together would have held the train.
The Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the disaster supports this idea, concluding that the use of the automatic brakes "would have acted as a temporary secondary defence, one that likely would have kept the train secured, even after the eventual release of the independent [locomotive] brakes." The report also points out that other railways, such as Canadian National, often use the automatic brakes as a back-up safety measure.
However, Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA), the railway involved in the disaster, told its staff not to use the automatic brakes. Even though they take as little as 10 seconds to activate, it can take up to an hour to get the train moving again as the system recharges, depending on its length, the air temperature and other factors.
Transport Canada is supposed to vet railways' operating procedures, meaning that MMA's instruction not to use the automatic brake as a back-up was listed in its operating manuals, yet raised no alarms. Auditors of MMA's manuals either did not notice notice it or saw no problem.
At the release of its 2014 report into the disaster, then-TSB chair Wendy Tadros called MMA "a company with a weak safety culture … where unsafe conditions and unsafe practices were allowed to continue. Which begs a question: Who, then, was in a position to check on this company … to make sure safety standards were being met? Who was the guardian of public safety? That's the role of government; to provide checks and balances."
The TSB's admission that the automatic brake "likely" would have prevented the accident if it was used as a secondary defence is on page 105 of the 179-page report and limited to a single paragraph.
"This is another example of self-regulation gone amok," said Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which has studied the regulatory problems that contributed to the Lac-Mégantic accident. The practice of letting railways write their own operating procedures under the Rail Safety Act that are then vetted by government auditors "has become a substitute for oversight," Mr. Campbell said.
Transport Canada said on Monday the department employed about 100 inspectors and auditors at the time of the accident. Since then, that number has climbed to 137. "It is important to note that inspections and audits are only one element in the oversight system," Transport Canada spokeswoman Mélany Gauvin said. "The work of Transport Canada's inspectors is complimented by other experts, including researchers, engineers and other departmental officials who play a crucial role."
The head of the union representing Transport Canada inspectors and auditors said 137 sounds higher than the reality, and was not sure how the department arrived at that number. However, Christine Collins, national president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, acknowledged the number has risen in the past few years.
Ms. Collins said MMA should not have been allowed to write its own safety procedures, particularly when carrying potentially explosive oil. "They should have never been allowed to do what they were allowed to do. They took shortcuts," Ms. Collins said.