Nearly 16 months after a train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, the federal government is finally implementing the kinds of regulations and inspections that could have prevented the disaster. The changes announced by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt will feel like too little, too late to the people of Lac-Mégantic, but they will improve rail safety in Canada and are the right steps.
The tragedy of July 6, 2013, happened because a train pulling 72 cars of unusually volatile crude oil in inadequately designed tankers was left unattended on a sloping main line without enough handbrakes set and without any backup precautions in place. The lead engine was in poor mechanical condition. And the now-defunct short-line hauler operating the train was in financial difficulty and had been allowed by Transport Canada to operate with a single crew member.
Transport Canada made some important changes in the immediate wake of the disaster, including stricter requirements for securing unattended trains and putting at least two crew members on trains hauling dangerous goods. In the months that followed, as fears grew about the increased use of rail to ship crude, Ottawa pulled the least crash-resistant tank cars from service and made sure the industry was doing proper route planning.
And now Ms. Raitt has introduced regulations that lay out the number of handbrakes that must be set and inspected on every unattended train. The number will depend on the slope of the tracks and the weight of the train cars. As well, air brake systems powered by the locomotives must be verified and fully charged, and at least one backup measure must be used.
Ottawa is also hiring inspectors to carry out more safety audits and is undertaking a blitz audit of the training practices of short-haul carriers. Finally, it plans to study the properties of various crude oils and to make sure rail shipments are properly classified when dangerous goods are being moved.
A larger issue for the federal government is the fact that the rail industry wants to ship an increasing amount of crude oil – a business opportunity created by an inadequate pipeline supply. But crude-by-rail carries risks. It's good to see that Ottawa is determined to minimize that risk in a convincing way.