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editorial

Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

After a runaway locomotive pulling 72 tankers filled with crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic and killed 47 people, it would have been appalling for Ottawa and the railway industry not to take adequate steps to prevent another tragedy.

So what's worse than appalling? The Transportation Safety Board says there were, in fact, more runaway trains than ever in Canada in 2015, just two years after Lac-Mégantic. The board logged 42 incidents involving trains or unattached cars that year, up from 30 in 2014, and well above the five-year average of 36 per year.

The TSB also said this week that only one of the five safety recommendations to come out of its investigation of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy has been fully implemented. Progress on two of them – including a critical one about using additional defences to secure unattended trains – was graded by the TSB just one level above "Unsatisfactory."

Just how hard can it be to pull the handbrake on a parked train? Obviously, it's not the same as keeping a Fiat in place. But let's not overcomplicate things, either. This is a simple game: You make trains go, you make trains stop, and you make trains stay where you stopped them.

The rail industry and Transport Canada updated the rules for leaving trains unattended on main lines last fall. But the TSB says the new rules aren't adequate because they depend on air-brake systems as a backup to the handbrakes that are applied on each car. The board says air brakes are unreliable – they can leak and then quickly lose their effectiveness. If the handbrakes haven't been applied according to the rules, the train can run away.

That's exactly what happened in Lac-Mégantic, and the TSB is not convinced it won't happen again. "It has been demonstrated over the years that depending solely on the correct application of rules is not sufficient to maintain safety," it says.

What the TSB wants is a third level of defence, such as wheel chocks for cars left unattended in yards, or modern systems that can remotely monitor handbrakes or restart a locomotive in order to maintain the air pressure in the brakes. Three years after the horrors of Lac-Mégantic, this hasn't been done, and now there are more runaway trains than ever. It's beyond shameful.

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