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Rail’s spread into suburbia ramps up debate over safety at busy crossings

Flowers and candles are left near the scene of the train-bus collision in Ottawa on Sept. 19, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

The carnage that remains in the aftermath of the collision between a bus and a train in west Ottawa this week is gut-wrenching. But that crash was just one of hundreds – many of them fatal – involving motor vehicles on Canada's rail lines every year.

The responsibility for maintaining and improving level crossings is shared between the railways and the owners of the roads that cross the tracks – the provinces or, more often, the municipalities. There are widespread calls for regulations to bring more uniformity and standards of safety to those junctions.

Neither the railways nor the municipalities want to be stuck with paying more than their share or to foot the bill for upgrades that would do little to improve actual safety. But everyone recognizes that this is an issue that must be dealt with as suburbs expand into what was once farmland and as railway volume increases.

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"We are saying there needs to be regulations, there needs to be national standards, they need to provide really clear, fairly broad-principled direction so that it's not a one-size-fits-all scenario, there's enough flexibility to respond to the realities in a local situation," said Brock Carlton, the chief executive officer of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

"The mayors absolutely say this is a priority," Mr. Carlton said. "So many towns in this country were built around the railway lines. So we have communities all across the country facing these challenges with level crossings and we are saying to the federal government: We need to get on with these regulations."

Regulations have, in fact, been drafted, and Lisa Raitt, the new federal Transportation Minister, said they will eventually be implemented. Ms. Raitt did not respond to an interview request but said Thursday on CTV's Power Play that, as far as the railways and the municipalities go, "there is nothing to prevent them from working on issues that they know they have at certain rail crossings."

There were 188 accidents at level crossings in Canada in 2012, up from 166 in 2011, based on Transportation Safety Board of Canada statistics. On average, 27 people are killed and another 35 seriously injured every year in collisions at level crossings.

The Railway Association of Canada says the safety measures installed at the crossing where six people were killed in Ottawa this week were well above the required technical standard. Other level crossings, however, are not in that sort of condition.

There was no barrier and there were no lights at the crossing in Lakeshore in Southwestern Ontario last year when Andrew Williams's Dodge Caravan was hit by a train. Two of Mr. Williams's four children were killed and a third was permanently disabled.

Greg Monforton is the lawyer for Mr. Williams's wife, Angie Williams, who is suing her husband, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the town. Mr. Monforton, who has spent his career dealing with personal-injury lawsuits, said the case is one of the most tragic he has ever seen. "When mishaps do occur the consequences are catastrophic beyond description," Mr. Monforton said. "There are very few minor railway-crossing incidents."

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He said for any meaningful reform to take place it's going to take a co-ordinated effort on the part of the various parties. "There is a significant overlap and division of responsibilities between federal, provincial and local road authorities and that has resulted in some confusion and lack of a co-ordinated effort to tackle this terribly important issue."

Gérald Gauthier, the director of industry liaison at the Railway Association of Canada, said the recent statistics on accidents at railway crossings must be looked at in the larger picture. Since 1980, he said, they have declined by 80 per cent and, when compared to the number of ordinary automobile collisions that occur on Canadian roads every day, they are a drop in the bucket.

The industry does place an emphasis on safety, he said, but it believes that the cost of what the government proposed in its initial draft was disproportionate to the benefit it would bring. "If a new standard is going to improve safety, we are all for it. All the new crossings should be designed up to this new standard," he said.

It would be impractical to require that standards be met for all existing crossings, he added. "Our solution is to do it for all new crossings and for existing crossings when there is a need based on a study."

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