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Canada TSB flags rail-safety concerns amid surge in runaway trains

A woman walks the tracks in front of the downtown core in Lac-Mégantic in 2014.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The Transportation Safety Board is concerned about a sharp increase in runaway trains and equipment in the rail industry last year, and believes Transport Canada hasn't done enough to improve safety procedures in the wake of the deadly Lac-Mégantic disaster.

There were 42 incidences of runaways in 2015, in which trains or unattached equipment, such as rail cars, broke loose and rolled away, TSB chairwoman Kathy Fox said in an interview.

That figure is up considerably from just 30 cases the year before, and is higher than the five-year average of 36 runaways a year.

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The increase comes less than three years after a runaway train led to Canada's worst modern-day rail accident. A train carrying more than 70 cars of explosive crude oil broke loose and derailed in the centre of Lac-Mégantic in July, 2013, causing a massive explosion in the Quebec town that destroyed the downtown and killed 47 people instantly.

"There have been more incidences involving runaway equipment in the past year" than in the previous few years, Ms. Fox said. "Runaways aren't going away. The issue is still there."

The TSB, which investigates rail accidents and makes recommendations to the federal government on ways to bolster safety, is particularly concerned that Transport Canada has not gone far enough in responding to its report into the tragedy.

Of the five safety recommendations the TSB listed in its report, only one – bolstered emergency-response procedures for crude-oil shipments – has been fully carried out, Ms. Fox said.

Four recommendations have yet to be fully addressed. One of those, involving new practices for securing trains left unattended, has been flagged as "satisfactory in part," by the TSB. That grade means the steps taken so far "will reduce but not substantially reduce or eliminate the deficiency," according to the TSB.

The other three unfulfilled recommendations, which include tighter audits on railway safety procedures, better route planning and risk assessment by railways when transporting hazardous goods, and the introduction of new tanker cars, have been given a grade of "satisfactory intent."

That means the TSB feels "meaningful progress has been made" in Transport Canada's plans to fix those problems, but the issues are still outstanding.

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Transport Canada believes it has responded to the concerns, even if the TSB disagrees.

"Transport Canada has accepted, and addressed, all the recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board in its final investigative report," the spokeswoman said in an e-mail. "The TSB will make the final decision as to whether Transport Canada has fully met the recommendations."

On the night of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the train was left unattended with not enough brakes holding it in place. After the accident, the TSB called upon Transport Canada to write tougher regulations. That led to a revamped rule on how trains are parked, including a prescribed number of handbrakes – which are mechanical devices set by hand on each rail car – and a requirement that a backup measure be used. The backup measure could include chocks, derails or using the automatic air brake on the rail cars to hold them in place.

"We're not convinced yet that [the new rule] goes as far as it needs to prevent runaways," Ms. Fox said.

In its investigation into the accident, the TSB said that if the engineer had set the automatic air brake on the more than 70 rail cars that night – a simple, 10-second procedure – it likely would have been enough to prevent the train from running away, and may have saved the town.

"We looked at these cars and we felt that the cars were in relatively good shape, they weren't really old and we all said it probably wouldn't have gone anywhere," TSB investigator Glen Pilon said.

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However, the TSB would prefer that train operators use physical devices such as chocks or derails as a secondary means of securing a train, followed by the automatic brake as the third method.

"We're not saying air brakes should not be used. … If you want, put that as a third defence, or a fourth defence, but it shouldn't be totally dependent on that," Ms. Fox said.

The increase in cases of runaway trains and runaway equipment last year suggests the issue needs to be looked at, Ms. Fox suggested.

"We believe that we have to keep the focus of the regulator and the industry on fully implementing our recommendations, so that no other town has to live through what Lac-Mégantic did," Ms. Fox said.

Editor's note: Earlier newspaper and digital versions of this story llisted the TSB's recommendation calling for tighter audits on railway safety procedures as "satisfactory in part." In fact, the TSB recently updated the status of that recommendation to "satisfactory intent." This digital version has been updated.

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