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TSB calls for improved safety after man in wheelchair killed by train

A railway crossing is seen in Moncton, N.B. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Stephen Harel was fatally struck by a CN train at the crossing after his electric wheelchair allegedly became stuck on the tracks in the early morning hours of July 27, 2016.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's rail safety investigator is calling on governments and rail companies to make railway crossings safer for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

The Transportation Safety Board issued the recommendation on Thursday in its report on the 2016 death of 29-year-old Steven Harel, who was killed by a freight train when his motorized wheelchair became stuck while attempting to cross the tracks at a public crossing in downtown Moncton.

The TSB investigation found several hazards at the crossing contributed to Mr. Harel's death, including a sidewalk edge that led directly into a gravel-filled gap in the asphalt and a lack of reflective lines or other visual aids to improve night-time safety.

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One of Mr. Harel's wheels became stuck when it slipped into a void in the sidewalk at 1:45 a.m., immobilizing him on the tracks. The Canadian National Railway Co. train crew saw Mr. Harel in their headlight from about 500 feet away but were unable to stop the train, which was travelling at 30 miles an hour when it hit him.

The TSB found no fault with the train and its crew, nor Mr. Harel's wheelchair. The investigators ruled out suicide and noted Mr. Harel was not impaired by drugs or alcohol.

The crossing had recently been repaired by a CN contractor with new asphalt. But the uneven surface and lack of sidewalk lines were not corrected because neither CN nor the City of Moncton were not required to conduct a post-work inspection, the TSB said.

"After the wheelchair's right caster wheel dropped into the void in the sidewalk, the wheelchair became stuck in the ballast, immobilizing the pedestrian," the report said.

Mr. Harel's parents are suing CN, the City of Moncton, a wheelchair manufacturer and a medical equipment supplier in New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench for unspecified damages related to his death.

The lawsuit alleges CN and the City of Moncton neglected their "duty of care" to inspect, maintain and fix the railway tracks, crossings and city streets and sidewalks, and also failed to facilitate safe public transportation and prevent accidents, particularly with regard to wheelchair-specific hazards.

Among the claims detailed in the lawsuit, none of which have been proven in court, it's alleged the city and the railway company were both aware that the railway track was a source of accidents for wheelchair users, and failed to take corrective measures.

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In its report, the TSB said since 1990 seven pedestrians using an "assistive device" have become stuck and hit by a train at a crossing. Five of these incidents were fatal.

A spokesman for CN said the company cannot speak about the details of the man's death due to the lawsuit.

"This incident was a terrible tragedy. Our thoughts remain with Mr. Harel's family and loved ones," said CN's Patrick Waldron. "Nothing is more important than safety at CN and we continuously work with Transport Canada, road authorities and communities across Canada to advance our shared responsibility of crossing safety."

Don Ross, the TSB investigator in charge of the Moncton probe, said the crossing has been upgraded to permit safe passage of people who use wheelchairs. But there is no requirement by the federal government to make a crossing as wheelchair accessible with proper sidewalks and smaller gaps at the rails, he said.

"It's up to the [local] road authorities to make those decisions," Mr. Ross told The Globe by phone. "They know their communities best. They know who's living there."

In 2016, Transport Canada required municipalities and other local road authorities notify railway companies of  crossings that are designated for people using wheelchairs and other aids. The shared information is to encourage the parties to identify hazards and implement improvements.

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But the TSB said its investigation not all authorities had shared the information with the railways, and the number of crossings designated for disabled people is unknown.

"As a result, persons using assistive devices at public grade crossings continue to be at elevated risk," the TSB said.

Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, was unavailable for an interview on Thursday.

"I share the TSB's commitment to advancing the safety of Canada's transportation system and the government of Canada is committed to working with our partners to further enhance the safety of Canada's railway system," he said in a statement.

With files from Canadian Press

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