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Politics Transport Minister Marc Garneau to outline rail safety upgrades

Transport Minister Marc Garneau answers a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday, April 22, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Transport Minister Marc Garneau will meet with residents Tuesday in Lac Mégantic, where 47 people died nearly three years ago after tanker cars filled with crude derailed and exploded in the centre of town.

The evening town hall is the first of a series of events on the minister's schedule connected to Rail Safety Week in which he will outline the government's approach to one of its most pressing files.

"We have learned a great deal from Lac Mégantic," Mr. Garneau said in an interview. "We want to help the people of Lac Mégantic to move forward. We want them to feel that we have taken the necessary measures to ensure that rail safety has been addressed."

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The increase in oil shipped by rail, as well as the spread of commuter rail, has led to heightened attention on the presence of trains in urban centres and the problems associated with at-grade crossings.

Canada has about 23,000 at-grade crossings, of which 14,000 involve public roads. About 86 people a year are killed in rail accidents in Canada, according to the latest five-year average released by the Transportation Safety Board.

The issue faced by governments and rail companies is the high cost of rerouting freight rail lines to go around towns and cities and of separating rail lines from road traffic with an overpass.

For instance, Edmonton has expanded its use of commuter light rail to ease congestion, but the lack of grade separation means car traffic backs up waiting for trains to cross key roads. Some of Edmonton's highest priority requests for federal infrastructure funds involve projects to separate road and rail traffic.

The lack of grade separation between Ottawa's bus-only Transitway and a rail line contributed to the deadly 2013 collision between a bus and a Via Rail train. Earlier this month the Transportation Safety Board said the federal government has not done enough to address the board's post-investigation recommendations, including establishing new rules for when trains should be grade separated from road traffic.

Those findings, along with a recently released review of the Canada Transportation Act led by former federal minister David Emerson, show Ottawa is being urged to go beyond the package of safety improvements that were announced by the Conservative government following the Lac Mégantic disaster.

Those reforms include a gradual phasing out of Class 111 rail cars, which the safety board says are not strong enough to carry flammable liquids. Mr. Garneau said that phase-out is on schedule.

The Transportation Act review report called on Ottawa to support the relocation of rail lines outside of dense urban centres.

The March 22 budget announced $143-million over three years to boost rail safety in areas like inspection and money for municipalities to improve rail crossings.

Other new rail-safety measures will include better testing and mapping of dangerous goods and more funding for first responders to deal with train derailments.

Mr. Garneau is expected to provide more detail on the government's plans Wednesday when he addresses the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto and on Thursday when he meets with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Ottawa.

"The bottom line is I don't want to see as many derailments," he said. "I certainly don't want to see any lives lost and I want to see our transportation system work efficiently."

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