The federal government will consult with industry stakeholders before deciding whether to require railways to install fail-safe train controls, even as carriers in the United States work toward a 2020 deadline to begin using the technology that Canada's transportation investigator says saves lives.
Marc Garneau, Canada's Transport Minister, said he will hold discussions with stakeholders before acting on any of the 60 recommendations made in a review of the country's transportation laws commissioned by the previous government.
The recommendations include requiring tougher tank car standards for certain dangerous goods, installing in-train video and voice recorders, and taking steps to adopt positive train control (PTC), which can override mistakes by train and track crews. The technology can automatically slow or stop a train in danger of a head-on collision with another train, if a track switch is aligned incorrectly or a train is travelling too fast.
Canada's rail investigator, the Transportation Safety Board, said the technology would have prevented the 2012 derailment of a Via Rail passenger train in Burlington, Ont. The train entered a crossover track at 67 miles an hour (108 kilometres an hour), exceeding the speed limit of 15 miles an hour, derailed and struck a building. Three crew members died and 45 people were injured.
The review of Canada's transportation laws written by former cabinet minister David Emerson echoed the board's call for the new system, and urged Ottawa to harmonize its rail safety regime with that of the United States. "The absence of a clear public declaration about how and when similar technologies (PTC, in-cab video and voice recorders) will be implemented in Canada may be viewed as placing insufficient priority on the safety of Canadians and Canadian communities," the report said.
Mr. Garneau told The Globe and Mail the amount of goods crossing the border by rail means it makes sense to have similar safety standards, but that it might not be necessary to mirror U.S. laws. "We look at these things all the time. … I'm not going to give any predictions but we're always looking for technology to ensure our train systems are as safe as possible," Mr. Garneau said, without elaborating. "We each have to make our final decisions. … We don't have to be identical on everything; as much as possible, we try to."
The United States passed a law requiring passenger railways and carriers of certain dangerous goods to begin developing and installing positive train control after 25 people died in a collision between two trains in 2008. U.S. lawmakers have extended the deadline at least twice, to 2020, after railways – including both Canadian railways that operate in the United States – complained the technology is expensive and difficult to implement.
The 2013 crash of an oil train in Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people and wiped out much of the Quebec town highlighted the need for tougher rail safety rules in Canada. Since then, governments in Canada and the United States have begun phasing out older tank cars, and requiring that new ones be built to better withstand a derailment. Tank cars carrying oil and other dangerous goods will have to use electronically controlled pneumatic brakes in the United States by 2021. However, Canada has been silent on the matter.
Mark Winfield, a professor at York University and an expert on railway safety policy, said Canada's lagging safety rules are a sign the self-regulating regime needs to changed.
"It is a bit odd that the U.S. has moved forward on these things and we're not – even more so given how integrated the two railway systems are," he said by phone. "Especially in light of Lac-Mégantic and other events, this would have been potentially helpful. It seems we're just being overly sympathetic to the railways when they complain about costs."
Mark Hallman, a Canadian National Railway Co. spokesman, said the company is making "steady progress" on the installation of positive train control on 3,500 miles of U.S. track, and will meet the 2020 deadline. The project will cost $1.2-billion.
Mr. Hallman said in an e-mail that positive train control is a "complex technology still under development … and CN believes it would be prudent to carefully assess the costs and benefits involved before considering PTC implementation in Canada."