Trains and safety are everyone’s concern

In late October there was a derailment just south of the Montreal River near Lake Superior’s eastern shore.  That train was carrying diesel fuel which leaked onto the track and sulphuric acid which didn’t.  It happened in a remote location and wasn’t an off-the-chart bad derailment.  But there is nothing that guarantees the safety of products shipped by rail and little political will in the current government to make things better.

If you have been watching hockey games recently you will have seen an ad campaign aimed at educating Canadians about rail safety.  It is no accident these ads have come about in the aftermath of the Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) report on last summer’s horrific derailment in Lac Megantic.   The ads are sponsored by the Teamsters who are the largest rail union in Canada and it is their employees who are often placed in harm’s way or blamed when something goes wrong – even though they may have had little to do with the outcome.

The Transportation Safety Board report on Lac Megantic explained how that derailment was caused by 18 factors including the employer’s safety violations and Transport Canada’s inadequate control over the rail company’s activities.  Chief among the problems that have led to more derailments in Canada is self-regulation.  While this idea may work in theory (that it is in a company’s best interests to run safe), it does not work so well in practice where the demand to make profit for shareholders is the primary concern.   Profit ahead of safety is never acceptable, but when the safety is that of our communities, like we saw in Lac Megantic, it is all the more misguided.

With the trend towards more and more derailments in Canada, one might expect the government to step up and provide leadership along with proposed solutions.  That is not happening, which is why the Teamsters have initiated an awareness campaign. The TSB, which specifically stated the government shares part of the blame and must restore measures to monitor railway companies as quickly as possible, couldn’t be blunter and still there is no action - hence the Teamster’s campaign.

Trains built Canada and are a part of our history and identity.  It makes no sense for our government to have not only divested from trains, like we did when CN was sold in the 1990s, but also to have washed our hands of rail safety too.   The outcome has been predictable and led to the demise of passenger rail along with the environmental crap-shoot that freight has become.  Neither of which are a fitting legacy for the great notion that built an east-west country against big odds.

Our communities would be well served by a stronger commitment to rail, both passenger and freight.  Most comparable countries have much stronger passenger rail presence than Canada does despite the environmental, economic, and social benefits of this option.  In the north we have watched as rail and bus presence has diminished.  The latest struggles of the Algoma Central passenger services came shortly after Ontario Northland cut passenger service on their lines.  Perhaps better passenger services for the north may be hopeful right now, but the safety of our communities shouldn’t have to be.  The government must see their role in this as critical and take self-regulation off rail company’s plates before we are asking how another serious derailment was allowed to happen.