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Ottawa leaves railway-crossing safety to provinces, municipalities

Canada's Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is pictured in October, 2012. She says it’s up to provinces, municipalities and railways to make sure busy crossings are safe as suburbs grow around rail lines.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

With suburban growth around rail lines a "reality," it's up to provinces, municipalities and railways to make sure busy crossings are safe, federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says.

Looming federal regulations for level or at-grade crossings are meant to help local governments and railway companies strike deals on building improved rail crossings where they see fit, but Ms. Raitt says regulations won't give Ottawa a bigger role. The federal government will instead set the standards and continue to consider funding applications through existing infrastructure funds.

"I think I leave it to the provinces and municipalities to determine how they fund their infrastructure needs, because it's their roads and it's the railway's lines," she said, later adding: "What the regulations are attempting to do is define and understand the responsible players with respect to the upkeep, maintenance and creation of one of those crossings … they're going to need some more clarity from Transport Canada, and we're going to give it to them. I think that's the best way of saying it."

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The crash in Ottawa last week involved a commuter bus leaving the fast-growing suburb of Barrhaven. Suburban growth is a reality, but not a problem, she said.

"The rail lines were built 100 years ago and cities weren't there. And now we do have people living in the area, and municipalities and provinces will want to cross the rail lines where they never crossed before, and that's why it's important for those two entities to come to an agreement on how to deal with it and make sure they're doing it in the most safe way that they can," Ms. Raitt said.

The federal government will release long-awaited draft regulations for railroad crossing safety within "months," she said, but will weigh any recommendations from the independent Transportation Safety Board (TSB) against the position of industry and municipalities. That drew a rebuke from NDP transport critic Olivia Chow. "I'd rather trust the experts than a new minister that may be listening to industry too much," she said, adding the TSB investigators "are the people we trust as an outside agency to tell the government how to keep Canadians safe. And to not take their recommendations, it means she's politicizing the whole issue of rail safety and beholden to the rail industry? Which side is she on?"

Ms. Chow cited a series of TSB recommendations that the government hasn't acted on over several years. Ms. Raitt acknowledges the regulations are long-delayed but is signalling a conciliatory approach to enable local governments to strike their own deals on crossings. "I hear the fact that sometimes people say it's taking an awfully long time, but you're trying to get the balance right," she said.

Ms. Raitt remains a supporter of Operation Lifesaver, a rail-safety awareness organization.

"What I'd like to see, quite frankly, is more discussion of the whole concept of safety around these crossings," Ms. Raitt said.

"Part of it has to be about communication with the public about the dangers associated with not stopping at rail crossings. And, separate and apart from the accident that happened, just a reminder that trains can't stop on a dime. I wish they could," she added.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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