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Crews investigate and prepare to remove the wreckage on Feb. 27, 2012, after a VIA train derailed en route from Niagara Falls to Toronto.

The Railway Association of Canada is defending a self-policing safety monitoring system that it says works effectively, as federal investigators seek answers to the Via derailment and critics call for improvements.

The number of accidents at federally regulated railways fell last year to 1,023, compared with 1,076 in 2010 – statistics that include everything from derailments involving spills to minor incidents that are the equivalent of fender benders.

Under federal rules, Canadian National Railway holds the responsibility for inspecting the tracks where the Via train derailed, following standards established by Transport Canada.

The Railway Association of Canada, whose members include Via and freight carriers CN and Canadian Pacific Railway, said the performance of Canadian companies has been steadily improving, noting the rail industry invested $1.7-billion in 2010 alone on infrastructure maintenance and development.

The safety management system, in force for more than a decade, is designed to promote scrutiny by allowing railway employees to closely monitor day-to-day operations, after a regimen of track inspections required by Ottawa.

"Over time, the system is producing the results that everyone wants – the industry, the public, the government," CN spokesman Jim Feeny said Monday. "The rail system is getting safer. There are ups and downs, there are variations from year to year, but the trend is going in the right direction. That's very hard to say at a time like this, when we have a tragic accident."

Union officials and safety critics, however, point to different measures to show the need for greater oversight. The number of main-track derailments climbed to 103 last year, compared with 80 in 2010. Twenty-one of the accidents in 2011 involved dangerous goods, up from 13 in 2010.

British Columbia experienced the highest number of main-track derailments at 25 last year, followed by 24 in Ontario and 21 in Alberta.

In the case of Sunday's derailment, traffic control at CN's MacMillan Yard in Vaughan, north of Toronto, would have electronically set the switch for the Via train.

Greg Gormick, a transport-policy consultant, said the Transportation Safety Board of Canada will need to examine whether there were any mechanical problems with the switch, but the focus might end up on the Via train's speed during a crucial attempted crossover from one track to another.

Railways "must include documented systems and procedures, which give both Transport Canada and the railways a consistent basis for monitoring safety performance," according to Transport Canada, which adds that it conducts audits to ensure compliance.