Trains need to stay on the track

Three derailments in recent weeks have brought the issue of rail safety to Northern Ontario.  With a derailment between Hornepayne and Oba and another two near Gogama the potential for disaster is growing despite what we may have learned in the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic.

At the heart of the issue is the way that rail safety has been left to the companies themselves.  The trend began in 1999 and by 2001, the Liberal government had replaced direct oversight with safety management systems changing the role of the federal government for rail safety.   Before that, federal inspectors enforced standards.  Now the job is done by rail company’s in-house safety inspectors and the federal role has been limited to enforcing the Railway Act, reviewing corporate documents on safety, and data analysis.  The results have been dramatic - none more than the Lac-Mégantic derailment that killed 47 people - but the Conservative government has remained loyal to deregulation despite mounds of evidence suggesting it is a failure.

In the past, Transport Canada inspectors would make regular and unannounced inspections.  Those have been replaced with inspectors verifying reports. It now takes a complaint about unsafe conditions or violations before an inspector gets involved.  The practice has gone from making sure that rail is safe to something more akin to letting the companies tell us it is safe. 

Of real concern, given that scenario, is a 2011 Auditor General report that shows Transport Canada is not following basic good practices, such as maintaining databases, quality assurance programs, and performance standards.  The report found these items were either inadequate or absent.

In the case of Lac-Mégantic, Transport Canada had granted the Montréal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Rail Company an exemption in 2012 that allowed them to use only one conductor despite multiple safety violations by the rail company.  Transport Canada no longer allows single engineer trains, but it took a disaster to help them see the problem.  Today, there is insufficient disclosure of who is granted exemptions, for what reasons, or even when they plan on conforming to existing regulations.

When the Transportation Safety Board was created in 1990 there seemed to be some political will on these issues.  In recent years that will is gone and the government cherry-picks recommendations flowing form the board.   Among the most important being disregarded are the calls for fail-safe systems to be enacted and another to reroute dangerous goods away from urban centres.  

As it stands, the deck is very much stacked and it is Canadians and our environment that are in harm’s way.  The latest derailment near Gogama saw 35 cars leave the track, catch fire, and several fell into the Mattagami River.    No one was hurt, but the river is being polluted and the million walleye that the Mattagami First Nation stocked last year are threatened, as is the tourist economy they were meant to support.   In many respects we are lucky to have avoided this occuring in one of our towns, but that is cold comfort when the government doesn’t seem all that concerned with preventing the next derailment.