When a VIA Rail train flies off a track in good weather, killing two engineers and a trainee on a switch between tracks on flat, well-used ground, on a popular run between Toronto and Niagara Falls, some questions need to be asked about rail safety in Canada.
Is it acceptable that 103 derailments happened last year – roughly two a week – on "main tracks," the lines between stations or terminals? (There were another 485 derailments on "non-main tracks," mainly in yards or terminals.) Is it satisfactory that, at least by this measure, Canadian rail safety is not improving? Between 2003 and 2007, the yearly average number of derailments was the same 103.
The premise of rail safety is that the companies that own the rail lines are responsible for day-to-day safety and inspections, while Transport Canada, with overall responsibility for safety, conducts audits of how a company maintains its safety management system. It does not do detailed technical inspections of tracks, switches and so on.
That sharing of responsibility between government and industry bears some similarities to the food-safety system. It may be good in theory, but sometimes not so good in practice. Ultimately Transport Canada needs to take responsibility for assessing whether, and where, that system is falling down in practice.
The system was put in place by a Liberal government in 1999, but accidents rose sharply between 2002 and 2005, including some dramatic mishaps, causing deaths and environmental damage, in several provinces – including a large oil spill into Lake Wabamun, Alta., near Edmonton. In response, transport minister Lawrence Cannon created a review panel that supported the system's general thrust, but said concerns remain around "fatigue management, locomotive design, locomotive event and voice recorders, rail traffic control locations, track and infrastructure, training, train dynamics, and drug and alcohol programs."
That review also concluded that, though the safety record was good by comparison to most railway companies in the United States, there was reason for concern. "With the exception of accidents and incidents involving dangerous goods, we note that main track derailments have shown an upward trend in recent years. This must be addressed. Also, accidents in railway yards and on spurs are occurring far too frequently and improvement is needed." Much remains to be done by the industry and the Transportation Safety Board, it said.
How much still remains to be done? Canada's rail-safety system promises a "modern, flexible and efficient regulatory scheme that will ensure the continuing enhancement of railway safety." The Canadian government needs to take a hard look at what happened to the enhancement.