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Ottawa proposes tighter safety rules for railways

A view of the train tracks in front of Sainte-Agnes Church in Lac Megantic, May 13, 2014.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Transport Canada is tightening regulations for railways' safety management systems, seven months after a damning report by the Auditor-General found Ottawa had little assurance that the approach was working.

The proposed changes, which will be published in the Canada Gazette next week, would require railways to appoint an executive to be legally accountable for safety and create a process for employees to report possible risks without the threat of being reprimanded. The new rules would apply to federal railways as well as provincially-regulated companies that use federal track, a statement from Transport Canada said.

The new rules come one year after a runaway train carrying volatile crude oil jumped the tracks in Lac-Mégantic, Que., setting off a series of explosions that killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings. The crash revealed a number of regulatory gaps and raised fundamental questions about the safety of Canada's railways.

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The Auditor-General's review, which was completed shortly before the Lac-Mégantic accident and published last November, found weaknesses in all aspects of Transport Canada's rail safety oversight and raised specific concerns about the department's ability to ensure railways were following their own safety management systems.

Transport Canada began requiring railways to develop the in-house safety plans in 2001 to encourage them to integrate safety into their corporate culture and adapt on their own to changes in the industry. The department is responsible for signing off on the systems and auditing railways' operations to make sure they are following the rules they created.

The Auditor-General's November, 2013 report found the government had audited only a fraction of federal railways' safety management plans during a three-year period under examination. The audit also raised concerns about poorly trained inspectors, too few auditors and limited follow-up with companies when rail safety problems were uncovered.

Other proposed changes announced by Transport Canada on Friday include requirements for larger railway companies to report additional data to Transport Canada.

A spokesman for Canadian National Railway said the proposed safety management changes "largely align" with the company's current practices and a spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway said the company has a strong safety management framework in place. Both railways said they would review the proposed changes further.

Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said in a statement that the organization welcomes the regulatory changes, which "will collectively reduce safety risks to our cities and communities."

The federal government has introduced a series of new rules on rail transportation during the past year, including a gradual phase-out of older model DOT-111 tank cars that are commonly used to haul crude oil. The older-model cars had been criticized for years by the Transportation Safety Board as prone to puncture and gas buildup and must now be retrofitted or replaced within three years.

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Transport Canada also proposed new rules earlier this year detailing how shipments of crude oil must be tested and classified, including a requirement for companies to vouch for the contents of a shipment and keep detailed records for at least two years.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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